By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 26, 2014
While Ole Miss was blinking in the spotlight – a function of not having been in the spotlight in 40-plus years – Alabama proved against Tennessee that the bigger the moment gets, the bigger the Crimson Tide usually plays.
It won’t go down as the signature win of the season – Alabama will have to work hard to top the 59-0 pasting of Texas A&M last week, although LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn remain on the schedule – but Blake Sims probably had the signature drive. Up 27-17 in the third quarter and badly needing a score to put Alabama three scores ahead again, Sims led Alabama to four third-down conversions before Derrick Henry polished off the Volunteers with a long touchdown run.
Tennessee had done everything it could to convince the world this wasn’t just another in a long line of failures against Alabama, which date back to the 2007 season, Nick Saban’s first in Tuscaloosa. Tennessee took the redshirt off QB Joshua Dobbs. It played the song “Turn Down For What” over the loudspeakers on every third down of the game, and if Lil’ Jon and friends had had the foresight to negotiate royalties on a per-play basis, he’d be able to buy the entire state of Wyoming right now. Tennessee put forth its best effort, both in terms of how it played and how hard it played, that this series has seen since the Mike Shula days.
But the ending was never really in doubt. And mostly, it was thanks to Blake Sims making plays with his legs, with his arm – and with his head.
Sims threw his requisite interception-that-wasn’t, but he didn’t force many throws and most importantly, he displayed a good bit of wisdom in knowing when to tuck and run. As a result, Alabama’s fourth-quarter drive that killed most of the remaining clock was executed smoothly and calmly, right up to the point fullback Jalston Fowler left the ball on the carpet at the 1-yard line.
For Alabama fans, Blake Sims has been an enigma the entirety of 2014. The dual-threat former running back, who wasn’t supposed to pressure defenses with his arm, had instead turned into a high-efficiency passer but an underused runner. That changed against Tennessee; not only did Sims run for a touchdown off a beautiful zone-read call, but he extended several drives and avoided pressure. The lone sack Sims suffered came when Tennessee used a linebacker in a speed-rush blitz against RT Austin Shepherd and got to Sims before he felt the pressure.
All the talk of Sims would seem to bury coverage of the contributions of WR Amari Cooper, but that shouldn’t be the case. Cooper now holds the school record for receiving yards in a game, to go along with most of the other Alabama receiving records that he already holds. It would be interesting research for someone to look into when the last time an Alabama receiver had more yards than the leading Alabama running back in a season in which the same running back started every game. Cooper should be getting more Heisman Trophy attention than he currently gets, and more than a little bit of that is due to Blake Sims figuring out how to engage him in the offense.
Tennessee, on the other hand, won’t be considered a doormat much longer if the Volunteers continue to attract players like Jalen Hurd or Joshua Dobbs. Unfortunately for the Vols, the team’s defense will suffer losses to the NFL in April on par with the losses its offense suffered last year. This is a team playing 20-plus true freshman because it has to, not necessarily as a recruiting gambit to attract additional talent in search of playing time. But in reality, Tennessee was only marginally effective in its downfield offense, and what effectiveness the Vols did display came only in the form of WR Marquez North.
Still, Alabama will have much to work on during the off-week before LSU. Alabama was sloppy with ball security against Tennessee, suffered a key injury to LT Cam Robinson, and committed too many mental errors to expect to be able to go into Baton Rouge and take out LSU without some work. Off-weeks can come at good times or bad times; this one is coming at a good time.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Tennessee.
1. Road game behavior improves, but there is still work to be done. Alabama was markedly more effective against Tennessee than Arkansas or Ole Miss, and most of that improvement had to do with how the team handled the emotional response from the home fans. Tennessee did everything it could to create a hostile atmosphere for Alabama, from the general noise to the coordination between game control and the UT student section, to pushing the envelope of the SEC’s new, relaxed rules governing artificial noise between plays. Alabama responded well early, but when Joshua Dobbs entered the game at quarterback and threw a wrench in Alabama’s defensive gameplan, the confidence level of the offense dropped noticeably until the defense asserted itself by holding the Vols to field goals on their third and fourth scores. Alabama’s renewed focus on emotional play kept the Crimson Tide from completely going into a shell during the middle of the game, but the Tide still made enough errors to fill a highlight (or lowlight) tape: blanking out on the 25-second clock, miscommunication with the sidelines, multiple breakdowns in focus on a missed PAT. Alabama has one road game left, at LSU, and the Tigers won’t excuse mistakes the way Tennessee did Saturday night. But it was good to see more energy and more resiliency against Tennessee than in prior road games.
2. How good – really – is Blake Sims? His stat line from the game: 14-of-24 (58.3%), 286 yards, 185.9 QBR, 11.9 YPA, 2 TD, 0 INT, 6 carries, 41 yards, 6.8 avg., 1 TD. Sims has elevated himself into the top echelon of SEC quarterbacks in 2014, something no one thought possible heading into the season. The efficiency he has displayed this year is the most surprising element to his play, but the ability to step into a leadership role and pull the team along with him is an underrated quality that is just as important as his stat lines. Still, the stats are nothing short of amazing. Alabama is through just 8 of its 12 regular-season games in 2014, and Sims already has more than 2,000 yards passing. Such numbers are not common at the Capstone, where strong running games and conservative passing games are the norm. To date, Sims’ worst effort came in a win over Arkansas, and it’s always a good thing when a quarterback’s worst performance didn’t cost the team a game in the standings. Alabama is moving into the real meat of its schedule now, but it has to feel good about what it’s getting from the quarterback position.
3. Kiffin’s return to Neyland Stadium was – mostly – a success: One of the complaints about Kiffin’s playcalling is that it either really works (Florida, Texas A&M) or it really doesn’t (Ole Miss, Arkansas). Saturday night’s win over Tennessee was one of those rare instances where Kiffin’s work was somewhere in the middle. He acquitted himself well upon his return to Neyland Stadium, and he gets kudos for being able to get back at Vol fans for nasty comments without going off the deep end. Still, some of his personality traits (flaws?) reared their head from time to time, the most obvious of those being an unnecessary pass call to DeAndrew White during clock-running time that went incomplete and was nearly intercepted. Fortunately enough, Tennessee was flagged for pass interference on the play and Alabama got a first down out of the deal, but Alabama should have been in ultra-conservative mode at that point regardless. It’s easy to pick nits after the fact, though, and the real takeaway from this season is that Kiffin’s full-bore, jugular-piercing style of calling plays has been a net positive for a team that needed a jolt of that kind of attitude.
4. Zone-read quarterbacks continue to give Alabama trouble. Dual-threat, zone-read based offenses continue to give Alabama fits, and with Mississippi State and Auburn looming on the horizon, this is not good news. Texas A&M never tried to press Kenny Hill’s mobility edge last week, and Arkansas’ Brandon Allen was a statue. The result? Alabama ate both quarterbacks for dinner. But against Bo Wallace and Tennessee, Alabama struggled to get a handle on a running quarterback. Alabama could theoretically claim it prepared for Justin Worley this week, but that excuse doesn’t wash. Word had begun to leak out of Knoxville as early as Tuesday that Worley wouldn’t play, and Alabama had already seen Joshua Dobbs in 2013 and knew what he was capable of doing. MSU’s Dak Prescott and Auburn’s Nick Marshall will likely both put up big numbers against Alabama; the Crimson Tide will have to simply outscore both opponents, or find a way to stop them that Alabama just hasn’t managed to find yet.
5. Ball security continues to be an issue. The muffed handoff from Blake Sims to Derrick Henry – which appeared to be more of a case of a blown assignment on Henry’s part than an actual fumble – and fumbles near the goal line by T.J. Yeldon and Jalston Fowler point to continued lapses in concentration by Alabama ball carriers. After two years of this, it can’t be explained away as bad luck, or just a fluke. Burton Burns has long been one of Alabama’s best assistant coaches, but it may be time for him to recommend a different tact to his running backs about how to wrap up the football in critical situations. In addition to sloppy ballhandling on running plays, drops in the passing game by Alabama running backs – especially a dropped screen pass on 3rd-and-long by T.J. Yeldon – continue to be a problem. Alabama’s margin for error won’t be as wide against Mississippi State and Auburn, and the backs need to be hosed down with Stickum if Alabama’s trainers can get away with it. Furthermore, Alabama’s tight ends and some of the Tide’s wide receiver corps – Chris Black, given his performance against Tennessee, most notably – will have to step up in coming weeks. Alabama needs other receivers to step up and take the pressure off Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White, especially given White’s penchant for twisting an ankle every 15 minutes.
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