By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 6, 2015
Alabama has made a science out of playing FBS opponents in the first game of the season who can offer a somewhat stern test, but really have no ability to win the game.
Wisconsin was just the latest in a long line of teams fitting this bill.
Alabama’s offense, retooled in the wake of Blake Sims’ departure, showed enough effectiveness to allay fears about the quarterback position. The defense stuffed the run, and the defensive line, as expected, dominated the line of scrimmage.
But Alabama didn’t show itself to be a flawless team. The pass defense was sketchy all night, particularly across the middle, and Alabama’s kicking game once again disappointed.
In other words, Nick Saban has his team right where he wants them.
With Middle Tennessee State coming to town next Saturday, Saban needed something to use to grab his team’s focus this week in practice. Wisconsin’s 228 passing yards would be a good place to start. But it will be hard to convince Alabama fans, or even its players, that the Crimson Tide can’t beat anyone it faces on the schedule.
Wisconsin appeared well-coached, disciplined and the Badgers played with a purpose. Not until Kenyan Drake snapped off an improbable 43-yard touchdown run late in the game did it appear Wisconsin was ready to give in to the reality that Alabama was simply better in all phases of the game.
However, Alabama has to figure out the intermediate, across-the-middle routes that involve Alabama’s linebackers and safeties. It’s the weak point of Saban’s defensive scheme, anyway, but Saban’s best Alabama teams have been able to overcome the schematic deficiency, either through superior athleticism at individual positions or by disguising the coverages more effectively. Alabama did neither very well against Wisconsin, and QB Joel Stave, a mediocre quarterback at best, completed two-thirds of his throws as a result.
The other issue that should jump out is the annual special teams deficiency – only against Wisconsin, the Tide’s one proven weapon, punter J.K. Scott, became part of the problem for the first time. Placekicker Adam Griffith missed both his field goal attempts. Regardless of Griffith’s leg strength advantage, if the misses continue, the Tide will have to take a look at walk-on Gunnar Raborn or another player.
Even with these shortcomings, though, Alabama may have had a better debut than anyone expected, thanks to an offense that seems to have retained its lethality even without Sims at the controls. Running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake had solid games, the Crimson Tide’s new receiver corps put forth a strong effort, and the starting offensive line did a solid job after shaking off an inconsistent first quarter.
The primary challenge against MTSU will be to keep players healthy, and to continue to build upon the foundation Alabama laid Saturday against Wisconsin. Alabama’s schedule, particularly the middle portion that makes up the bulk of the conference slate, will have to be played perfectly in order to remain in title contention.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Wisconsin:
1. Jake Coker may not have won the job outright Saturday, but he didn’t do anything to lose it, either. Coker’s initial four drives were cold-hot-cold-hot, which was understandable for a player getting his first career start. Where Coker really seemed to win the job was the third quarter, when he engineered two scoring drives that included a handful of good decisions and deft passes. A quick hit on a seam route to TE O.J. Howard was the best of the lot. Coker managed the game well, was aware of the play clock (something Cooper Bateman struggled with in relief) and didn’t panic in the pocket. His greatest sin Saturday was not throwing the ball away quickly enough in the face of pressure, which resulted in a pair of sacks. The concerns over his elongated throwing motion appeared overblown and irrelevant, and he threw well while moving. Coker needs to work on his deep passing more, however, a shortcoming magnified by the fact he’s following one of the most talented deep passers in Alabama history.
2. Only injuries can stop Alabama’s ground attack. Derrick Henry rushed for 147 yards on 13 carries and scored 3 touchdowns. Put bluntly, he was never stopped. Even when Wisconsin had the right defensive call for the situation, Henry was able to turn those plays into 5- and 6-yard gains. Kenyan Drake took a couple of quarters to get his game legs, but the 43-yard touchdown was chock full of extra effort and raw speed. Even third-teamer Damien Harris, who was handcuffed greatly by a second-team offensive line that isn’t up to par yet, showed good moves and leg drive. Alabama’s offensive game plan mixed tempo with traditional power running sets, something that really hasn’t been tried in college football yet as a philosophy. Early returns suggest Alabama may have hit a home run there.
3. New receivers lived up to billing. Wisconsin’s secondary isn’t the pinnacle of athleticism by any means, and it went downhill fast the moment S Michael Caputo left the game with a concussion. But Alabama’s receivers ran good routes, didn’t drop many passes and made plays in traffic. There is no Amari Cooper yet, and there might not ever be in 2015, but there might not have to be another Amari Cooper this season, either. If Alabama continues to get solid production from its top 6 or 7 receivers – to say nothing of the contributions of TEs O.J. Howard and Ty Flournoy-Smith – then opposing teams won’t be able to overload the box to stop the running game.
4. Pass defense appears to still be an issue. There’s no question young cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick will be good players in the very near future, but both had their lesser moments against Wisconsin, especially Humphrey. Alabama was done no favors, either, by an officiating crew that was overly strict with its interpretation of defensive pass interference. The area of most concern, though, wasn’t the freshman corners, it was again the safety position (aside from Eddie Jackson, who played a solid game in his first as a starter there) and the pass defense skills of the linebacker group. Alabama was vulnerable in the 10- to 20-yard middle zone, to the extent that Reuben Foster appeared to play more in Shaun Dion Hamilton’s spot as the game went on. Geno Matias-Smith wasn’t as visible as he perhaps should have been, but it was hard to tell at times whether he was the issue or whether it was the scheme. Maurice Smith appeared to have a difficult night again. The good news here is that all are healthy and depth is much better than in 2014, which means time will cure a lot of problems with this group. It just needs to happen quickly before Alabama finds itself in a track meet with another spread passing team.
5. Special teams were horrific again. There was nothing good to report here other than that Adam Griffith’s kickoffs and their affiliated kick coverage kept Wisconsin pinned most of the night. Nothing else worked, however. Griffith missed two easy field goals. Punter J.K. Scott looked like this was his first playing time ever, not like a player who almost won the Ray Guy Award in 2014. Cyrus Jones did a decent job on punt returns, but he got little help from blockers. And then there was Chris Black curiously taking a knee at the 7-yard line on a kickoff return after his blockers were slow to get back from defending a would-be onside kick. If Alabama loses the chance to compete for a title because of a special teams gaffe in 2015, the fan base will go nuclear. Special teams have been a problem at Alabama ever since Ron Middleton left the staff.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN