By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 18, 2014
After back-to-back critical games against LSU and Mississippi State, and with the Auburn game looming in two weeks, Alabama may be looking at this week’s game against Western Carolina as somewhat of a break.
And that’s probably the right idea.
Nick Saban might pull his hair out at the suggestion that this is a cupcake game, but he can’t very well make a case that Alabama scheduled the Catamounts to up its strength of schedule. The only potential hiccup here is that WCU, which was one of the dregs of Division-IAA last year, is 7-4 in 2014 and nearly knocked off South Florida in its opener before eventually falling 36-31.
Still, Alabama is a far sight better than the Bulls, so 36-31 doesn’t seem likely here. Alabama’s chief concern is not getting key personnel hurt before the Auburn game and SEC Championship Game, if the Tide beats the Tigers.
Alabama will get a tune-up for Auburn, as Western Carolina is yet another spread team with a running quarterback. The Catamounts show good balance, ranking 42nd in rushing, 55th in passing and 47th in total offense in FCS. Overall, though, it’s a fairly pedestrian offense that is still finding ways to achieve consistency. Alabama brings its familiar multiple, pro-style attack to this game, but given WCU’s struggles in stopping the run, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Alabama utilize a very vanilla game plan this week.
Troy Mitchell has accounted for roughly 65 percent of his team’s offense this year. Mitchell is 208-of-313 (66.5%) for 2,320 yards, 18 touchdowns and 9 interceptions through the air and has carried 121 times for 572 yards (4.7 avg.) and 6 touchdowns, which includes yards lost to sacks. Despite WCU being a lower-division team, Mitchell has chops and Alabama will have to make an effort to contain him. Garrett Brown is the backup but hasn’t played much. Alabama will start Blake Sims, whose late-game heroics and high efficiency are becoming legendary. Expect to see a lot of Jake Coker in this game and perhaps Alec Morris as well. Although Mitchell is a solid quarterback for what Western Carolina does, it’s hard to believe he’s better than Sims, who has better stats at a tougher level. Advantage: Alabama
Aside from Troy Mitchell, WCU also brings in Darius Ramsey and Detrez Newsome. Both are averaging 5.2 yards per carry and have combined for 1,242 yards. Backup quarterback Garrett Brown can also run well. Ramsey is a scatback type; Newsome is about the size of Alabama’s Tyren Jones. Both Mitchell and Brown are roughly Blake Sims’ size, so there’s not really a big banger available for the Catamounts. Alabama may start T.J. Yeldon, but don’t look for him to play much as he rests ankle and foot injuries. Derrick Henry will probably get most of the work, with Tyren Jones probably getting the balance of the carries. Altee Tenpenny was suspended this week and was running on the scout team this week in practice, so he might not get any carries. Alabama could go the walk-on route late in the game or play fullback Jalston Fowler there. Michael Nysewander figures to get some work at fullback in relief of Fowler, too. WCU has developed a nice stable of backs for its conference, but Alabama just has more talent – a recurring theme here. Advantage: Alabama
Spearman Robinson has 9 touchdown catches on the year and can be problematic for defenses, but Western Carolina lacks that one true bellcow receiver that Alabama sometimes has issues with. Terryon Robinson will start on the other side, with a host of players rotating in the slot, including Kanorris Benson, Jeff Moore and the beautifully named Willie Police. Western Carolina will use their running backs as receivers quite often, but tight ends Michael Helms Jr. and Tyler Sexton aren’t big keys to the offense. Alabama will start Amari Cooper, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if DeAndrew White sat out this game. Christion Jones or ArDarius Stewart will probably get most of the snaps opposite Cooper, anyway, and WCU will also see a lot of Chris Black, Cameron Sims, Robert Foster and Parker Barrineau. Brian Vogler figures to also be used sparingly, which means more of O.J. Howard, Brandon Greene, Dakota Ball, Malcolm Faciane and Ty Flournoy-Smith at tight end. This one ends up being closer than one might expect due to the injuries to White and Vogler, but as good as Spearman Robinson is for WCU, Amari Cooper is the trump card here. Advantage: Alabama
Western Carolina has used more offensive line combinations than just about anyone Alabama has seen this season. Eight different players have started games. Tyler Philpott and Josh Wineberg have been the stalwarts, starting all 11 games so far. Jake Thornton will get the call at center, with the other two starters likely being Ethan James and Hunter Kirby. Tanner Poindexter, Andrew Potts and Brandon Berridge will add depth. The Catamounts are 16th in FCS in sacks allowed, and coupled with their success running the ball, it means they’re doing something right with all the combinations. Alabama will start Ryan Kelly at center, with Leon Brown and Arie Kouandjio at the guards and Austin Shepherd and Cam Robinson at the tackles. Robinson might not see as much action as the others in order to protect his injured ankle. Get ready for a lot of Grant Hill and Dominick Jackson at the tackles, Isaac Luatua and Alphonse Taylor at the guards and Bradley Bozeman at center. The Catamounts have been much improved here in 2014, but still trail Alabama by a good bit. Advantage: Alabama
The Catamounts base from a 4-man front, but have struggled to contain the run, likely because of the 4-2-5 scheme designed to stop spread offenses. Western Carolina ranks 108th in FCS in rushing defense and 65th in total defense, but is 9th in raw pass defense and a respectable 29th in pass efficiency defense. Scoring defense is a middling 49th. Alabama brings its venerable 3-4 over/under scheme that ranks 6th overall in Division-IA and has no real weaknesses.
The Catamounts’ primary weapon on the defensive line is E Caleb Hawkins, who has 10 tackles for loss and 3 sacks and can get up the field. On the other side, it’s a bit cloudier. John McBeth has nine starts there this year, but has been fairly ineffectual and didn’t play last week against VMI. Andrew Mayton has sort of taken over the slot, but while he has 2.5 sacks on the year, he doesn’t make a lot of tackles and tends to get ridden out of plays. Depth outside is not good, with Tahjai Watt and Daniel Nash both being a decided step down from the starters. Fred Mooring is also available. Inside, it’s much the same story, with the Catamounts rotating between several players, trying to find the right mix. Freshman Ezavian Dunn and sophomore Dylan Sluder seem like good bets this week, given they’re the only 300-pounders on the Catamount roster. Kelvin Ume, if healthy, and Helva Matungulu will provide depth. Alabama will start its spread alignment of A’Shawn Robinson in the middle flanked by Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway outside, with Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand providing depth there. Brandon Ivory, Darren Lake and Josh Frazier will bolster the middle. Look for Dee Liner to possibly get some work, along with Korren Kirven and perhaps Anthony Orr. No contest here. Advantage: Alabama
Daniel Riddle and Sertonuse Harris are the starters; they both collect a lot of tackles, but both are smaller than some of Alabama’s defensive backs. They’ve also combined for only 3.5 sacks and 1 interception, meaning they don’t turn games around on their own. And, Riddle is a freshman. Tyson Dickson, if healthy, will be the only backup used. He seems to be much more active and around the ball when he’s in, but he’s only played six games this season. Alabama will start Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest in the middle, flanked by Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall outside. Ryan Anderson, Rashaan Evans, Tim Williams and, if healthy, Dillon Lee will provide depth there, while Reuben Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Walker Jones figure to get time inside. Again, no question who’s the best here. Advantage: Alabama
Western Carolina has some size in the middle of the defense with Ace Clark and Christon Gill. Gill, who also lines up as a spread linebacker at times, is a particularly big hitter, but Clark – at 6’3” and around 225 pounds – is probably the best player in the secondary. The corner players – Jaleel Lorquet, Fred Payne and Trey Morgan – can have their moments. This secondary has overachieved in 2014 and isn’t afraid of a challenge, so Alabama can’t gameplan indiscriminately. The Crimson Tide will use Eddie Jackson, Cyrus Jones and Tony Brown at cornerback and Landon Collins, Nick Perry, Geno Smith, Jarrick Williams and Jabriel Washington at safety. Look for Bradley Sylve to get some time in this game at corner, with Maurice Smith and Laurence Jones also getting some time at safety. If Western Carolina’s secondary was elevated to the SEC, it would be about mid-pack. Not bad, but also not Bama. Advantage: Alabama
Almost unbelievably, the Catamounts have attempted only 4 field goals this year. Richard Sigmon has hit 3 of them, with a long of 33 yards. The Catamounts are 55th in FCS in net punting but have yet to settle on a punter, using both Destry Barnwell and Blake Metcalf there. They average 39.7 yards per kick together, which means it’s clear the way this category is going already. The Catamounts have been good on kickoff returns – and they figure to get plenty of practice there on Saturday – but have struggled on punt returns. Alabama’s J.K. Scott may end up winning the Ray Guy Award as a true freshman, and this week, he could end up being the team’s placekicker as well. Adam Griffith is hurting, which could get true freshman walk-on Gunnar Raborn into the game. Aside from the placekicking right now, Alabama’s special teams seem to have stabilized, and the advantage at punter here pushes the category to Alabama – even though Alabama doesn’t plan to be punting much in this game. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories and in both trench matchups. This game shouldn’t be close.
The only way it gets close, is if Alabama doesn’t take it seriously. There is a way to take games seriously and still protect key players, though, and look for Alabama to be ahead by a lot early in the game, then let the rest of the game serve as the opportunity to build depth.
Western Carolina is better than it’s been in the past. It’s not good enough to beat Alabama.
W. Carolina 7
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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