By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 20, 2013
While Alabama’s coaches are likely to never publicly say so, the goals for Alabama’s game against UT-Chattanooga are different than for any SEC game – especially with Auburn coming up next week.
Even though the Mocs are 8-3, they’re a Division-IAA team that hasn’t been challenged this season by anyone outside its division. The Mocs did beat transitional Division-IA Georgia State 42-14 in the second week of the year, but also lost to Samford, Georgia Southern and, worst of all, UT-Martin in the season-opener. Alabama will be the first full-member FBS school the Mocs have played in 2013.
Given the Mocs’ offensive imbalances – this is a run-heavy team with virtually no threat of a passing game – and questionable rush defense (68th in FCS), it’s hard to imagine Alabama being challenged. But Alabama’s primary consideration is not running up 60 points against the Mocs; it’s keeping A.J. McCarron, T.J. Yeldon and the entire defense healthy going into Auburn next week.
The Mocs rank 18th in rushing offense in Division-IAA, but only 60th in total offense. That’s because the passing game comes in at 109th in the division. The Mocs base the entire offense around what dual-threat QB Jacob Huesman is able to do. In addition to being the team’s passing leader, he’s also the leading rusher. Alabama will see a steady diet of zone-read and spread-option looks from the Mocs. The Crimson Tide’s offense fell down a bit against Mississippi State in terms of scoring, but A.J. McCarron’s passing numbers and T.J. Yeldon’s rushing numbers were on par with normal results. Alabama’s multiple, pro-style attack is much more balanced than the Mocs’ offense, to say nothing of the advantage in athleticism.
Jacob Huesman has been an effective leader for this team. He is 164-of-240 (68.3%) for 1,637 yards, 16 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He’s also carried the ball 176 times for 894 yards (5.1 avg.) and 9 touchdowns, which takes into consideration yardage lost to sacks. He’s an excellent Division-IAA quarterback and is probably better than a couple of quarterbacks Alabama has already seen this year. But A.J. McCarron is better, particularly as a passer. While Alabama will have to account for Huesman scrambling and throwing on the run, he generally lacks the ability to make a lot of plays downfield. In short, he’s an excellent analog for Auburn’s Nick Marshall, even if he isn’t the athlete that Marshall is. Huesman is about the same height as Marshall, but is thicker and not as fast. As for backups, Terrell Robinson backs up Huesman for UTC. He has completed every pass attempt this season – all 4 of them. Alabama’s Blake Sims has seen significantly more action for Alabama than Robinson has for UTC. Huesman is the Mocs’ best player, but McCarron still leads him by a long shot. Advantage: Alabama
The Mocs will often vary the formation and, unlike other teams that make use of the zone-read scheme, will frequently use two running backs. In practice, this makes the offense more like Oklahoma State’s version than Mississippi State under Dan Mullen or Florida under Urban Meyer. Keon Williams and Marquis Green have been the two backs most frequently used, but Williams has not played the last four games due to an ankle injury. Green (69 carries, 282 yards, 4.1 avg., 1 TD) is the typical scat back, but Williams (116 carries, 687 yards, 5.9 avg., 9 TD) has a build not unlike Tennessee’s Marlin Lane or former LSU back Keiland Williams. If he plays Saturday, he won’t always be easy to stop. Freshman Derrick Craine (34 carries, 167 yards, 4.9 avg., 2 TD) and Kendrix Huitt (44 carries, 157 yards, 3.6 avg., 3 TD) offer depth, as does Taharin Tyson. Craine looks like the heir apparent to Williams, while Huitt lacks the speed to be a game-changer. Alabama will counter with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, with Dee Hart, Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry offering depth, along with H-back Jalston Fowler. The only questions here are (a) whether Yeldon and Drake have slept with footballs glued to their hands enough this week to make them both get serious about ball security, and (b) if Yeldon’s carries will be limited after getting nicked up against MSU. Otherwise, Keon Williams is a quality back that could probably be on scholarship at a half-dozen SEC schools, but he’s not in Yeldon’s league. Advantage: Alabama
The receiving situation for UT-Chattanooga has been a problem, to say the least. The top five receivers all average less than 10 yards per reception. Backup quarterback Terrell Robinson actually starts at receiver out of necessity. Tight end Faysal Shafaat (33 catches, 308 yards, 9.3 avg., 6 TD) is the team’s leading receiver, but the next two leading receivers are running backs Marquis Green and Tommy Hudson. Robinson is next, with 27 catches, for 263 yards (9.7 avg.) and 2 touchdowns, followed by the only true wideout with more than 10 receptions, C.J. Board. Xavier Borishade averages 17.1 yards per catch, but he’s only caught 8 passes on the year. Alabama counters with its top group of Kenny Bell, Amari Cooper, Christion Jones, Kevin Norwood and DeAndrew White, with Chris Black, Raheem Falkins and Parker Barrineau providing depth. There could be a change this week at tight end, thanks to an ankle injury starter Brian Vogler suffered at the end of the Mississippi State game. O.J. Howard could get the start, with Harrison Jones, Brandon Greene and Malcolm Faciane providing depth. Jalston Fowler will start at H-back, but Kurt Freitag was on crutches two weeks ago, meaning walk-ons Michael Nysewander and Corey McCarron are in line for playing time this week. This category is a major mismatch. Advantage: Alabama
The Mocs run the ball well, but pass protection has been an issue. UT-Chattanooga ranks 59th in Division-IAA in sacks allowed, despite Huesman’s mobility. Patrick Sutton and Kevin Revis have starting jobs nailed down, but there has been some swapping at the other three spots. Brandon Morgan, Synjen Herren and Corey Levin are set to start, although Shaun Hill and Hunter Dockery have also started games this year. Sutton is the center, Herren and Revis are the guards and Morgan and Levin start at the tackles. The principal issue for UTC is one of bulk: Only Herren tops 300 pounds, and Chattanooga’s tackles are about the same size as Alabama’s defensive ends. The Tide will start its familiar group consisting of Ryan Kelly in the middle, flanked by guards Arie Kouandjio and Anthony Steen and tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd. Expect to see plenty of backups in this game, including center Chad Lindsay, guards Alphonse Taylor, Kellen Williams and Isaac Luatua and tackles Grant Hill and Leon Brown. Walk-on center Paul Waldrop has also played this year and may see further action. Advantage: Alabama
The Mocs run a four-man front as a base, flexing between a 4-3 and 4-2-5 look depending on the opponent, but the 4-2-5 has essentially become UTC’s base. Pass defense has been stellar; the Mocs rank 2nd in raw pass defense and 23rd in pass efficiency defense, helping them to rank 11th in total defense and 6th in scoring defense in Division-IAA. But rushing defense has been an issue. UTC ranks an abysmal 68th against the run, and the defensive line has been a carousel of different starters. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme ranks in the top 13 in all major categories, including a top ranking in scoring defense. Alabama has been particularly effective in corralling spread-option teams.
Much like the running back position, the Mocs have one inside playmaker here, and he’s hurt. Derrick Lott is the heaviest defensive lineman on the roster at 303 pounds, but an elbow injury sidelined him after the fifth game and he’s out for this one as well. In his absence, Josh Freeman and Daniel Ring will start inside, with Davis Tull and Keionta Davis at the end positions. Tull is one to watch coming off the corner – at 6’3” and 240 pounds, he compares favorably to some SEC defensive ends. He has also been highly productive in 2013, garnering 15 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks. The rest of the Mocs’ entire team has 10 sacks, cumulatively. The problem with bulk is especially apparent inside, with Freeman and Ring being about the size of former Alabama lineman Nick Gentry, if even that big. Depth is a huge issue thanks to multiple injuries, as Toyvian Brand and Chris Mayes are pretty much the only players off the bench to play. Alabama will start Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan, with A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen providing depth outside and Darren Lake subbing for Ivory. Anthony Orr, Korren Kirven and Dee Liner should also see time in this game. Alabama will have to keep an eye on Tull, but other than that this is pretty much a walkover. Advantage: Alabama
Again, more injuries for the Mocs will make this a depleted unit. Gunner Miller is probably out for this game, and expect to see UT-Chattanooga in a 4-2-5 rather than trying to replace him. Wes Dothard and Muhasibi Wakeel will start, with Wakeel having the task of replacing Miller. Dothard is the team’s leading tackler and is a high-quality Division-IAA player, able to make plays in the passing game and behind the line of scrimmage in run support. He could probably play for several SEC teams in certain packages. Wakeel, though, has yet to show he can be a difference-maker, although he has good quickness and will probably finish with a high tackle count. Depth is iffy; C.J. Murrell and Whit Shelton are the best the Mocs have. Alabama will start C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest inside, with Reggie Ragland, Tana Patrick and Reuben Foster coming off the bench. Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall will start outside, with Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Dillon Lee providing depth. Advantage: Alabama
The secondary has been a strong point for the Mocs this season, while Alabama is dealing with injuries at the moment. Alabama could be without Deion Belue for this game, which would mean Cyrus Jones would start opposite either John Fulton (a good bet given Saturday is Senior Day) or Bradley Sylve, who appears to finally be back from an ankle sprain. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will add depth. At safety, Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins will start, with Geno Smith the primary backup. Jarrick Williams got dinged up against MSU, so look for more of Jabriel Washington or Jai Miller this week. The Mocs are led by safeties D.J. Key and Chaz Moore along with cornerback Kadeem Wise. Corner Dee Virgin and safety Zach McCarter round out the starting group in the Mocs’ 5-DB set. There is a decided drop-off from the first three names to Virgin and McCarter in terms of playmaking ability; Wise, Key and especially Moore have been good in run support as well as being stingy against the pass. This is one area where the Mocs’ depth stands up to Alabama’s. Sema’Je Kendall, Ryan Bossung, Nakevion Leslie, Beau Simmons, Cedric Nettles and Oscar Prado have all played this year for the Mocs, along with Will Johnson, who is likely out for this game. The Mocs won’t be a pushover in the secondary, and if Belue is absent for Alabama, this comparison gets a lot tighter. But Alabama’s edge at the strong safety position probably makes the difference in a closer-than-expected battle. Advantage: Alabama
Nick Pollard does everything for the Mocs, some things well and others not so much. As a placekicker, he’s just 5-of-9, including 1-of-4 from beyond 40 yards. But as a punter, Pollard has had a solid season, and is one of the best Alabama has seen this year in terms of killing punts inside the 20. Pollard has only 2 touchbacks but has left 21 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, which is quite a feat. The Mocs, not surprisingly, are 15th in Division-IAA in net punting. UTC is mediocre in punt returns, but is 6th in the nation in kickoff returns, mostly thanks to Chaz Moore. Alabama’s kickoff coverage has been bumpy at best since the loss of coverage ace Vinnie Sunseri to injury, so Alabama will have to be careful here. The Tide will start Cade Foster at kicker, and Foster has had a solid season for the Tide. Unfortunately for UTC, as good as Pollard is as a punter, Cody Mandell is one of the best in the nation and a finalist for the Ray Guy Award. Alabama’s return game is no worse than Chattanooga’s equal, and given the quality of the athletes at Alabama, very likely better. The Mocs put up a good fight, but the edge at placekicker alone is enough to shift this one to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories. In terms of OL-DL matchups, Alabama strongly leads both, with the presence of Davis Tull at DE for the Mocs the only real concern in either comparison.
While no game is won until it is played, the injury situation in Chattanooga by itself is enough to suggest this game is headed for blowout territory. And Alabama badly needs a blowout. It needs to have every starter on the bench by halftime, and spend the second half playing “Name That Walk-On.”
Just as important as a victory is the act of keeping McCarron, Mosley, Yeldon, et al, safe and sound. Alabama can’t play tentatively, trying to avoid the injury bug, but the Crimson Tide must play with careful focus. Alabama needs to score early, quickly and repeatedly, and trounce the Mocs before moving on to what has become (as it often is) the most important game of the season.
The UT-Chattanooga coaching staff should be commended for making the Mocs a contender in their division. But Alabama is truly in another league.
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