By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 4, 2014
There is little mystery as to why Alabama finds itself tonight a one-loss football team: It’s not playing well enough to be better than that.
Even if there was no controversy over the Tide’s second-quarter strip-and-score touchdown by Cyrus Jones, Alabama was having problems in this game and the future schedule will present many similar problems unless Alabama figures out how to play like their National Signing Day pedigrees suggest it can be done.
This issue actually goes back to the 2013 season, and back then there was a lot of credence given to things like bad attitudes and lack of leadership.
But lack of leadership doesn’t have much to do with failing to figure out how to defense a bunch formation, or why a fifth-year senior fumbles a kickoff return or why the best safety in America has problems adjusting to a deep route out of trips formation – twice. These are deeper issues, the kind that either speak to issues with the talent itself or the development thereof.
This week, there was quite a bit of hype pitched at Ole Miss’ program, which has recruited well enough under Hugh Freeze that pundits were beginning to do full-roster comparisons of the Rebels’ talent versus that of the Crimson Tide.
Here’s the problem with that: Hugh Freeze didn’t recruit a class to Ole Miss before 2012. He’s been in Oxford two and a half years. Players like Bo Wallace, Senquez Golson and others are in Oxford courtesy of Houston Nutt, and Nutt’s Ole Miss recruiting classes were decidedly more red-chip than blue-chip in their makeup.
There’s either a lack of buy-in going on – not to “The Process,” but to simply playing great football – or Alabama, which has leaned heavily toward recruiting ability in recent assistant coaching hires, might need to sacrifice some of that for greater emphasis on technical proficiency. Either way, Ole Miss didn’t beat Alabama on a fluke – if anything, the Rebels won in spite of flukes, as Alabama got the close calls that mattered and got most of the bounces as well. Ole Miss won because it looked like the more composed football team, responded better to adversity and, with no better way to say it, just looked like it “got it” better than Alabama did.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ole Miss.
1. Penalties. Ole Miss was flagged three times for 25 yards; Alabama was hit 8 times for 52 yards and nearly every one of those was crucial. None, probably, was more crucial than the one that wiped off a Blake Sims scramble for a first down on Alabama’s final drive and preceded Senquez Golson’s interception. Alabama came into the game ranked 71st in the country in penalties per game, and this is a stat that will have to be addressed. It’s directly attributable to discipline and coaching, which is good news going forward because Alabama has the system in place to get a collar on the issue. But even if Alabama does fix the problem, the Crimson Tide will have addressed it one game too late.
2. Playmakers have to start actually making plays – or at least not make them for the other team. Blake Sims’ interception at the end was on a play called to have 6’6” O.J. Howard go up one-on-one against 5’9” Senquez Golson. Golson won, Howard lost. It’s past time for Howard to step up; even though Howard caught 3 balls for 81 yards Saturday, he bobbled two of those eventual catches and dropped a first-down pass while wide open. Landon Collins was burned badly twice and played tentatively. Christion Jones’ fumble on a kickoff return was a killer. Leon Brown may have finally run out of chances at right guard. Derrick Henry kept trying to bounce plays outside and was a non-factor as a result. Alabama got very little contribution overall from its wide receiver group with the exception of Cooper, which we touched on in our pregame preview article. The problem with limited production wasn’t universal, however; Blake Sims played very capably, Amari Cooper was patient and had another solid day, and T.J. Yeldon seemed to react to Kenyan Drake’s injury by focusing and running harder than he has all year. Alabama’s front four on defense controlled the Ole Miss running game all afternoon. But Alabama has a case of several players in key positions that just aren’t playing to a standard on a consistent basis.
3. Defensive coaches never adjusted to Ole Miss passing game in second half. This might be the most frustrating of all because all Ole Miss was doing was running bunch formations, trips and diamonds. This is not new to football. Cornerback Cyrus Jones was the only defensive back to consistently shut down his man; Tony Brown was good at times but erratic overall, and Alabama’s safety group looked average at best. Worst of all, though, was the confusion that was apparent among the players in the secondary. With the exception of Brown at corner and Maurice Smith, who is a package player, this is not a neophyte group. Jarrick Williams’ return at some point this season will help, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Ole Miss simply lined up, ran routes and beat Alabama downfield.
4. Injuries to Kelly, Drake were killers. While Kenyan Drake is still fumble-prone, he gave Alabama’s offense a dimension few other teams have: He was able to line up as a running back, flash out to wide receiver and be just as effective downfield as most teams’ starting flankers and split ends. That’s gone for this year and who knows beyond that. Ryan Kelly’s absence at center was probably worse for Alabama, which occurred after Leon Brown rolled up on his ankle from behind. Bradley Bozeman didn’t do a bad job blocking in Kelly’s place, but he didn’t move with enough urgency in getting the line ready for play and his shotgun snaps were borderline awful. Kelly came back to the sideline in street clothes, which is never a good sign and means there’s a decent chance Bozeman will have to start in Fayetteville next week, with either a true freshman (Josh Casher) or walk-on (Paul Waldrop) behind him. Denzel Devall was also knocked out of this game but Alabama has much better depth at that position.
5. The silver linings: Run containment, running game. Alabama held Ole Miss to 70 yards rushing on 2.2 yards per rush, which bodes well for next week’s contest against run-only Arkansas. Also, Alabama was able to run the ball consistently thanks mostly to the progress of true freshman LT Cam Robinson and the vast improvement of senior LG Arie Kouandjio, whose transformation has been eclipsed only by that of Blake Sims. Without Drake around to provide a burst, and with Tyren Jones likely to miss a few weeks following a hand injury, Alabama will have to get top-level performances from both Yeldon and Henry every week, no exceptions, if Alabama is to get back into the conference race.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN