By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 17, 2012
Nick Saban’s famous 24-hour rule – his opinion of what an acceptable time frame is for celebrating a big victory or rehashing a tough defeat – was in no danger of being broken Saturday, even as the Crimson Tide was in the process of dismantling woeful Western Carolina.
Indeed, talk about Auburn was in full swing during the Western Carolina pregame. By halftime, with Alabama enjoying a 42-0 advantage and figuring out which walk-ons to play in the second half, the talk about Auburn had turned into a din, compared to comments about the action actually happening on the field.
Alabama had two responsibilities Saturday: beat Western Carolina, and avoid any serious injuries. Alabama took care of the first 5 minutes into the game. It managed to also score a victory on responsibility No. 2, although linebacker C.J. Mosley sustained what looked like a mild shoulder injury before later re-entering the game.
Western Carolina, after all, was the Tide’s opponent in 2004, when QB Brodie Croyle tore an ACL running out of bounds after the game was well in hand. The 2004 team might have been an SEC title contender prior to the injury; afterwards, Alabama was little more than a tough out. So when A.J. McCarron left Saturday’s game voluntarily after throwing just 6 passes, no one demanded a curtain call.
There isn’t much of substance to be gleaned from a game like this (although we’ll try to find five salient points to do a breakdown, anyway), other than the fact Alabama’s recruiting and player development was on full display. Western Carolina is a bad Division-IAA team, and was barely an opponent for the Tide. The game was filler, nothing more.
As such, it turned into a stretch to take any observation from this game and project it a week forward. Auburn was playing its own version of Western Carolina (Alabama A&M, in the Tigers’ case), so these two teams’ results against Texas A&M and Georgia from two weeks ago mean more in regards to next week than anything that happened Saturday.
Here’s an attempt at a Five-Point Breakdown:
1. Fans get a sneak peak at a post-McCarron offense. For much of the second half, Blake Sims operated behind the second-team offensive line, with walk-ons at running back and receiver and a compressed set of available plays. But for a couple of drives, he was allowed to work with the first-team OL, receiver corps and a full offensive package. The results were promising. Alabama, under Sims, would be a run-heavy team, based mostly out of the shotgun with the bulk of its running plays being of the zone-read variety. As long as Alabama wasn’t faced with having to play from behind, Sims would be able to run a fairly substantial set of passing plays set up by play-action. It isn’t perfect, and still needs work, but Sims got valuable playing time Saturday and showed enough to suggest a post-McCarron world wouldn’t be apocalyptic.
2. Young receivers becoming more integrated in the offense. With Kevin Norwood held out as a precautionary measure, Alabama used Cyrus Jones, Marvin Shinn and Nathan McAlister a lot more than usual. Jones and Shinn are freshmen, and both provided some evidence that they will be key components of the offense going forward. On Christion Jones’ touchdown reception from A.J. McCarron, Shinn had also gotten open on the play and would have had a touchdown had McCarron decided to go his way. Cyrus Jones looks like some combination of Christion Jones and former Bama receiver Darius Hanks; his awareness on an overthrown Blake Sims pass prevented a Western Carolina defender from having a chance – albeit a slim one – at an interception. Jones also showed good quickness and crispness in his routes. Given that Jones, Shinn and the other Tide receivers were working against the strength of the Catamount defense, the WCU secondary, the outcome was a favorable one.
3. Fumbles on punt returns must stop. Christion Jones misplayed two balls and Cyrus Jones one; one of Christion Jones’ miscues resulted in an Alabama fumble. The problem has gotten so bad even Eli Gold found the courage to ask Nick Saban about it in the postgame radio interview, and apparently as evidence that the fumbling has indeed reached critical levels, Saban did not have Gold beheaded. But he did offer a couple of pieces of keen insight (as if that would come as a surprise to anyone), mentioning that Alabama’s punt returners have had issues aligning to the ball consistently, as well as the advances in punting technique (“Bulldog” formations, as Saban called them) that force returners to chase the ball at odd angles. If that is the case, it would not be a surprise in the future to see Alabama opt for a defensive back at the position, as DBs typically find themselves reacting to the ball coming on unfamiliar trajectories, rather than wide receivers who are accustomed to running planned routes. At any rate, the mystery as to why Gene Stallings trotted Chad Goss out to return punts is now solved. Even though Goss was no threat to return a kick, he caught everything that flew. Might Alabama fans see Nathan McAlister back to return punts next? Probably not, but McAlister is playing now because he was the talk of spring practice for his reliable hands.
4. Young player to watch: Geno Smith. Smith finally appeared to separate himself from Alabama’s other reserve cornerbacks (Bradley Sylve, Jabriel Washington) and logged his best game yet in crimson. Smith’s ability to play both cornerback and Star safety could be a huge factor going forward, as Alabama has struggled recently using Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri in that role. There is often no player on an Alabama team who looks more lost than a freshman defensive back trying to play Nick Saban’s system, but Smith had a good day against Western Carolina, and it wasn’t because he picked off a pass or made a dynamic play on the ball. Smith’s good day is a result of looking comfortable and confident. While Washington and Sylve both got meaningful snaps, too, Smith looked as if the game was starting to slow down for him. And that’s a big deal going forward.
5. Defense still not forcing enough turnovers. Alabama came into this game tied for 8th in the country in turnover margin, but that has much more to do with Alabama’s offense displaying uncanny ball security than the Tide defense being overly opportunistic. The difference in turnover margin cost Alabama directly against Texas A&M, but the greater worry has been the overall trend in the second half of the season. The issue seems to be one of comfort and confidence among the Tide’s defensive players; players who are more confident in their keys and reads tend to put themselves in a position to make more plays and force more turnovers. Alabama can probably beat Auburn just by taking care of the ball when the Tide is on offense, but against Georgia and whoever Alabama faces in a bowl game, the defense will need to play more recklessly and sure of itself.