By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 23, 2013
Whatever Alabama’s team goals were for its game against UT-Chattanooga, the most important objectives from an outside perspective were twofold: Win big, and win healthy.
Alabama accomplished the first and mostly accomplished the second. Left guard Arie Kouandjio sprained an ankle, but never came out of uniform and emerged from the locker room after halftime with a re-taped foot. Had Alabama been playing a worthy opponent, Kouandjio probably would have remained in the game.
But by the time Kouandjio could figure out whether his ankle would allow him to continue, Alabama was up 35-0 and coasting toward the eventual margin of 49-0. Kellen Williams played most of the way in Kouandjio’s place, played well, and Alabama booked its 11th win against no losses, setting up a game against Auburn that could eventually decide one half of the BCS Championship Game, no matter who wins.
Alabama’s victory came despite weather conditions that deteriorated throughout the day. An incoming cold front and stiff breeze made even watching the game barely bearable, and parts of the stadium got a brief misting of rain as well. Crowd numbers were noticeably off, although those that came largely stuck it out to the end, long enough to see things like senior walk-on brothers Jeremy and Jared Watson make their first (and likely only) appearance in an Alabama game.
Alabama also got the added benefit of facing one more zone-read, spread-option team before heading to Auburn, but even that had its limits. Regrettably, Chattanooga was neither fast nor polished enough to provide Alabama with a suitable stand-in for Bama’s chief rival. The Mocs were slow, tentative and proved to have even less of a passing game than do the Tigers. The size differential made for several mismatches in the interior line that simply won’t exist next week.
The good news for Alabama is that it has no major flaws that still need correcting. Provided Kouandjio is good to go – and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be – Alabama should win at Auburn simply by executing its own gameplan. The Crimson Tide and Florida State appear to have separated themselves from the rest of the college football world, and Alabama is capable of exploiting Auburn’s tendency to go one-dimensional.
As for this week’s Five-Point Breakdown, it’s a strain to really find five talking points in this game. Most have an Auburn flavor thanks to the similarities – at least in theory – between the Chattanooga offense and Auburn’s.
1. OL/DL mismatches gave Alabama its biggest edge. There were several areas in which Chattanooga was lacking – UTC seems to have no wide receivers at all, for instance – but the biggest mismatch of all came in a contest of UT-Chattanooga’s offensive line against Alabama’s front seven. It wasn’t just the Tide DL that caused problems; because of the Mocs’ issues with size, Alabama was able to bring linebackers on run blitzes and knock UTC’s offensive linemen two or three yards backward. The zone-read offensive scheme is predicated on having options relating to running lanes, be it inside or outside the box. UT-Chattanooga often had neither. Alabama was blowing up the initial read by collapsing the inside gaps, and a complete disrespect for the Mocs’ passing game allowed cornerbacks to cheat up and seal off the outside. The latter won’t be possible against Auburn; despite the Tigers’ troubled passing attack, Auburn’s wide receivers must be accounted for. Plus, there’s a matter of around 40-50 extra pounds per man inside that Alabama will be facing.
2. UTC’s QB choice benefited the Tide. Jacob Huesman was expected to start this game, but didn’t. He did come into the game when Terrell Robinson lost his helmet on a tackle and was forced to sit out a play. Huesman was being bothered by a minor knee injury, and given the Mocs have qualified for their division’s playoffs, there was no reason to expose their best player to the inevitable. By playing Robinson, the Mocs’ passing threat was even more diminished – not only is Huesman a a better thrower, but Robinson plays wideout when not triggering the offense himself – but Robinson’s wheels made him a decent stand-in for Auburn’s Nick Marshall. If Alabama’s coverage plan can frustrate Marshall the way it frustrated Robinson, the Auburn game will get a lot less scary.
3. Special teams might be the deciding factor next week. And, if by “the factor this week,” one were to mean the factor in whether UT-Chattanooga scored or not, special teams almost fit the bill this time. Christion Jones showed both why he’s a feared weapon (75-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter) and why he can singlehandedly cause an entire stadium to spontaneously suffer from asphyxiation (muffed punt in the first quarter that he should never have tried to field). UT-Chattanooga punter Nick Pollard did probably the best job anyone has done in all of college football recently in executing the low, rugby-style kick – Jones’ touchdown came on a “traditional” punt – but it wasn’t enough. Alabama blocked a field goal, stifled the Moc return game and turned every kick into a reason to watch. Auburn’s special teams are one of its strongest units, so Alabama will need all the good it can muster.
4. Young Tide backs show signs of breaking out. Derrick Henry looked positively wooden in his early work this season, but as winter gets closer, Henry is beginning to look more like a running back and less like a H-back trying to tote the football. Henry got 66 yards on 6 carries against the Mocs, but it was the fact he didn’t get them all in a straight line that was most impressive. Henry showed his best cutback ability yet, and proved he has the speed to pressure the second level of the defense. Altee Tenpenny didn’t get as much work – and when he did, it was while surrounding completely by substitutes – but he showed toughness and churning footwork that he had previously been missing. The continued development of both players will be crucial, particularly if Kenyan Drake continues to have ball-security issues as T.J. Yeldon’s backup. Drake encountered no problems Saturday, but Auburn’s defense hits much harder than UTC’s. Perhaps having Henry break through the way he did Saturday will encourage Drake to be more careful.
5. Saturday’s feel-good index pegs the meter. In addition to the aforementioned Watson brothers, A.J. McCarron’s next-to-last completion in Bryant-Denny Stadium went to his brother, walk-on tight end Corey McCarron. The younger McCarron actually contributed quite a bit on Saturday, thanks largely to Brian Vogler’s absence from the game. The fact Vogler, who was held out due to injury, was missing also opened the door for Malcolm Faciane to get substantial playing time with the starters. Faciane did a good job blocking in the running game, and he might be a better option than Brandon Greene because of his ability to contribute as a receiver. Defensive lineman Dakota Ball returned from injury to get his first action of the year. Reserve QB Alec Morris led a scoring drive (albeit one play), and even though Alabama’s final drive was just one play long, the offensive line was made up almost entirely of walk-ons, including a couple who saw their first-ever game action. Seeing those walk-ons congratulate each other while leaving the field is one of those moments that makes college football a joy to watch.
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