MTSU wrap-up: Some things better, others worse than they looked

Sep 12, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Kenyan Drake (17) is hit by Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders safety Quay Watt (22) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 12, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Crimson Tide running back Kenyan Drake (17) is hit by Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders safety Quay Watt (22) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 13, 2015

For Alabama fans who made the trek to Tuscaloosa Saturday to watch the development of quarterback , Alabama’s young receivers and a defense trying to convince the college football universe that 2014 was a statistical outlier, the Crimson Tide’s 37-10 win over Middle Tennessee State was decidedly a mixed bag.

Alabama ran up 532 total yards, which is becoming somewhat a normal occurrence for the -directed attack, but whether the offense actually made any progress is up for debate. What wasn’t, however, was that Alabama’s defense shut down a high-speed spread offense, which gives some hope for the future against contenders like Ole Miss and Auburn.

Under , Alabama has tended to play poorly in Week 2 against overmatched opponents. The total performance the Crimson Tide put up against the Blue Raiders was actually one of Alabama’s better efforts in games like these. But the Crimson Tide still comes out of this game not knowing what its quarterback situation is, and with major questions in the kicking game that the coaches don’t seem to have an answer for.

On the other hand, Alabama’s defensive substitution patterns and pre-snap adjustments against ’s frenetic attack were top-notch. The Crimson Tide only got caught out of sorts two or three times, not a bad success rate given the Blue Raiders were running plays about once every 18 seconds at one point in the game. Alabama never looked like it didn’t have an answer for , and the only Blue Raider score came against reserves on a very short field following a long interception return. It would be difficult to complain about the Bama defense.

The Bama offense, though, was another matter. Quarterbacks Jake Coker and played a half of football each, aside from Bateman yielding to Alec Morris in the final 2 minutes of the game during trash time. Neither player really took the reins, and Coker’s comfort level seemed to regress from a week ago. Alabama also punted 5 times and attempted 2 field goals in addition to 2 interceptions, meaning 9 drives failed. Against a thin defense like the one fielded by Middle Tennessee State, such a performance raises questions no matter how many yards were gained.

Worst of all is that Alabama will be facing an Ole Miss team that has scored 76 and 73 points in its first two games. The MTSU game was a nice tune-up for Alabama, as the Rebels’ offense shares much of its underpinnings with MTSU’s.

To his credit, Nick Saban voiced his agreement with the above analysis, noting Alabama’s offensive inconsistency but praising his defense’s ability to adjust and adapt. He also expressed his frustration over PK ’s continuing struggles on field goal attempts. Unfortunately, time has run out in regards to having these issues fixed before the real meat of the schedule arrives.

The ultimate question following the MTSU game is whether this same effort, applied next Saturday, would be enough to take down Ole Miss, and the answer is, not likely. While Alabama’s defense is going to be a difficult assignment for any offense, even one as prolific as Ole Miss’ has been so far, the Alabama offense will likely struggle in its first game against players with speed.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-MTSU:

1. Coker gets tentative, Bateman gets too brave, MTSU defensive backs feast: This was the problem that dogged Coker through both spring and fall camps but was absent in Week 1 against Wisconsin. It came back in a big way against MTSU, with Coker failing to look the way of several would-be, wide-open receivers. He zoned in on his primary option too often and ignored coverages. On several occasions, Coker threw into obvious double- and triple-coverage situations, and his deep passing continues to be suspect at best. He has the arm strength for it, but perhaps not the acumen. He also has the unfortunate luck of following perhaps the best deep passer in modern Alabama history, Blake Sims, which makes anything Coker does appear to wilt in comparison. It didn’t help matters any that Coker (nor Cooper Bateman) was given as much time to throw as he should have (we’ll cover that next), but Coker appears to lack the skill of knowing when to cut his losses. The deep ball that was intercepted and ultimately set up an Alabama safety was a no-go from the start, and most of the stadium gasped in dismay that the pass was ever thrown in the first place. Coker has to learn to get outside the pocket and throw the ball away. As for Cooper Bateman, his lesser arm strength, compared to Coker, was on full display for much of the game, although he did have the best throw of any of the quarterbacks on a midrange pass to TE Ty Flournoy-Smith in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, he followed that pass up with the worst throw of the day, back toward the middle of the field and late, which resulted in a long interception return to set up the only MTSU touchdown. Nick Saban seemed to throw a wet blanket over ideas of an open quarterback battle in his postgame press conference, intimating that Coker was the starter. But if Coker plays next week like he did against MTSU, it will be hard for Alabama to win that game.

2. Offensive line had trouble when it shouldn’t have. Whether this was due to impaired focus, which happens sometimes against an overmatched opponent, or if it’s an unfortunate but accurate harbinger of things to come, Alabama’s offensive line, particularly its right side, did not have its best day. RT Dominick Jackson especially struggled at times, particularly with footwork that looked slow. The left side of the line also had its issues early on, but as the day wore on, Alabama seemed to do most of its damage on the ground over that side. MTSU pass rushers, however, had some success against LT Cam Robinson and LG Ross Pierschbacher, at least in regards to being able to get a step on them. But on most occasions, Robinson had the presence of mind to ride his man out of the play. Still, snap-to-affect times (STAT), which need to be around the 3-second mark in order to give quarterbacks their best shot at success, hovered around the 2-second mark on many plays. What makes this most worrisome is that MTSU came into the game with two new starters at the defensive end positions and without a true proven pass rusher on the team. When it was time for reserve offensive linemen to come in, Alabama used several different alignments, making one wonder whether the lineup will be the same for Ole Miss.

3. Alabama’s receivers were a mixed bag and the learning process will not conclude overnight. Aside from the tight end position, which produced 5 receptions for 99 yards on the day, the receiver corps didn’t show out. Dropped passes and sloppy routes were too plentiful. Cooper Bateman nearly threw an interception in the third quarter thanks to Chris Black appearing to run the wrong route on a timing pattern. In addition, Alabama’s blocking on two-man receiver screens was just average; meanwhile, MTSU’s receivers showed how it was to be properly done on several occasions. Production continues to be well-spread, however: Eight different players caught passes, with 5 players catching at least 4 balls apiece. But there still isn’t a true bellcow in the group. This issue should be self-correcting as the season goes along, but it won’t fix itself in time for the Ole Miss game.

4. Alabama almost has to make a change at placekicker. Saban alluded to the possibility in his post-game press conference. Both J.K. Scott and walk-on Gunnar Raborn are capable of kicking field goals. If Adam Griffith was benched completely, Scott would handle long kicks and Raborn perhaps handling the shorter kicks. Given that Griffith continues to kick off well, it would seem he could be trusted with long-range field goal attempts, but his second attempt against MTSU, which came from just under 50 yards, missed badly when Griffith took a bad pass at the ball and popped it up like a sand wedge from the rough. In addition to some physical issues – Griffith had a significant back injury in 2014 and may still be feeling the effects – this is most definitely a mental issue for him now and no one is being helped by him continuing to kick. Unfortunately, Raborn has some limitations of his own, and is not automatic from short range. It’s a good bet that Griffith will continue to be listed the starter next week, but the hook may come quickly for him. On a good note, J.K. Scott’s punts appeared closer to being back to normal against MTSU, and even when the distance wasn’t completely there, the hang time was such that the Blue Raiders couldn’t mount a return. However, long-snapping and holds on placekicks still leave something to be desired. Alabama needs to bite the bullet and hire an actual special teams coach rather than assigning it to other staff.

5. MTSU’s limitations in downfield passing hamstrung the Blue Raiders Saturday: Rick Stockstill succumbed to the temptation to bench a returning starter for his own son in fall camp, and paid the price Saturday. It didn’t take long to realize Brent Stockstill’s effective passing range was limited to within 10 to 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. The younger Stockstill didn’t hit a deep pass all day, and on one of the few attempts at doing such, picked him off. MTSU didn’t score until the end, when Tuscaloosa native and 2014 starter Austin Grammer came off the bench to throw a touchdown pass against Bama’s reserve secondary. MTSU’s game plan was apparently to work the flats and the short-distance sideline passes in an effort to move defenders out of the middle, then attack the inside gaps with the run. It didn’t work. Once Alabama stopped respecting Stockstill’s ability to stretch the defense vertically, the Tide was able to flood the flats and short-middle zones with too many bodies. Up front, after a few early adjustments, the defensive line began to set the edges with consistency – appeared to play a big part in that – and the Blue Raiders were finished at that point. Would things have been different with Grammer calling the signals? Probably not, but Alabama would have had to defend more sections of the field.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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