By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 22, 2015
The last time Louisiana-Monroe visited Bryant-Denny Stadium, the year was 2007 and Nick Saban was in the process of installing “The Process” into the Alabama program. By now, everyone knows what happened: A technically sound and well-coached Louisiana-Monroe squad upset a struggling and largely rudderless Alabama team, which at the time provided a source of great amusement for media across the country, but particularly the media of south Florida.
Nick Saban, though, got the last laugh. He leveraged the loss to the Warhawks into a point of inspiration for the team as it entered the pivotal 2008 revival season, and then the championship season of 2009.
Now, he gets his chance for revenge against the Warhawks themselves.
But this game is more about just an obscure stat regarding revenge or even about the final margin of victory (assuming Alabama wins the game at all, which it almost certainly will). This game is going to be about Alabama establishing the path it will take through the meat of its schedule, which kicks off the following week in Athens, Ga.
The Ole Miss loss had as much to do with lack of identity – at least offensive and perhaps defensive, as well – as it did any particular play or plays. Given that Alabama should win this game without much trouble, developing those identities going forward will be the key to future success – or lack thereof.
ULM is coached by a different man than in 2007, Todd Berry, but the Warhawks still run a no-huddle spread. The Warhawks had to replace 6 starters coming into the year, including the quarterback, as well as fix a running game that went cold in 2014. As for the latter, not much has changed. ULM ranks 109th on the ground, but a more respectable 31st in passing for a combined ranking of 65th nationally. Alabama, meanwhile, is 23rd in total offense and is balanced – 32nd on the ground, 35th through the air – but trails most teams (85th) in passing efficiency. Turnovers have obviously been a significant problem. Alabama is still tinkering with its offensive identity; is this a pro-style attack, a read-option attack, a spread attack, a West Coast attack, or some combination thereof?
Like many other schools, when the choice came down to the senior with the traditional quarterback makeup, or the dual-threat freshman, Louisiana-Monroe chose the freshman. Garrett Smith (49-of-62, 79.0%, 576 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT) has been a playmaker through his first two games, but he has yet to face a defense as good as Alabama’s. Smith’s ability to move the ball on the ground (18 carries, 72 yards, 4.0 avg., 1 TD) makes him the Warhawks’ second-leading rusher. Senior Brayle Brown (1-of-4, 25.%, 17 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT) will back him up. Brown is not immobile, but he doesn’t run the ball nearly as well as Smith.
Alabama will counter with … who knows? Most likely, Jake Coker will get the start. Coker’s numbers (51-of-92, 55.4%, 628 yards, 5 TD, 3 INT) are actually just comparable to or worse than those of his backup, Cooper Bateman (29-of-39, 236 yards, 74.4%, 1 TD, 2 INT), but Coker has been far more effective off paper because his superior arm strength opens up the midrange and deep routes – or, at least the possibility of a successful deep passing game. The two players’ efficiency ratings (124.2 for Coker, 123.4 for Bateman) and yards-per-attempt figures (6.8 for Coker, 6.1 for Bateman) are also close. It would seem Coker would have a firm grasp of the position after basically leading Alabama back from the dead against Ole Miss, but Nick Saban hasn’t committed to such. It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility, therefore, that Alec Morris (no stats so far) will be given a shot this week. It seems ridiculous to suggest such a conclusion, given the freshman status of Garrett Smith, but Smith has a more firm hold on his job than any of the Alabama quarterbacks do on theirs. Alabama’s uncertainty is not a plus, here. Advantage: Louisiana-Monroe
The Warhawks’ leading rusher, Ben Luckett, probably won’t get many carries against Alabama, or any at all. Luckett, one of the team’s kick returners, ran up all 84 of his yards against Nicholls State. The Warhawks’ top two backs are actually Kaylon Watson (13 carries, 42 yards, 3.2 avg., 0 TD) and DeVontae McNeal (12 carries, 20 yards, 1.7 avg., 1 TD). All three players have good height/weight figures (around 6’0”, 215 for each), so they’re not the normal scatback-type players seen in a small-school spread offense. ULM uses no fullback. Alabama will counter with Derrick Henry (54 carries, 370 yards, 6.9 avg., 7 TD), and we’ll let those stats stand for itself and tell you what you need to know about who’s going to win this category. Kenyan Drake and Damien Harris both figure to play in this game, as well as probably Derrick Gore and perhaps Ronnie Clark as well. Michael Nysewander gives Alabama a talented blocking fullback. No need to spend any further time here. Advantage: Alabama
The problem for Alabama is that Robert Foster is probably done for the year with a shoulder injury. That pushes true freshman Calvin Ridley up into a starting role alongside ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney. All three are talented receivers with unique skill sets, but depth is now an issue. Cameron Sims, who Alabama called upon to spell Ridley against Ole Miss, hasn’t recovered significantly enough from a knee injury to be much of a threat. Sims is still a capable blocker in the running game, but probably won’t catch many passes against top secondaries. Chris Black figures to get most of the missing snaps from Foster’s total, while Daylon Charlot should see more time. Parker Barrineau and Derek Kief are also available, as is true freshman Deionte Thompson, who has yet to play. Meanwhile, ULM gets most of its production from slot receiver Rashon Ceaser, who has 25 receptions in just 2 games. Ajalen Holley provides a deep threat. R.J. Turner will start at flanker, but he’s caught only 1 pass so far this year.
Alabama would be in danger of giving up this category if not for the presence of tight end O.J. Howard, who has had a solid season thus far. ULM’s Harley Scioneaux is not a bad receiver, but Howard outclasses him. Alabama also has better depth at the position, with Dakota Ball, Ty Flournoy-Smith and Hale Hentges available. This one is closer than Alabama would like, thanks to Foster’s injury, but the Crimson Tide starters are still better options. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s line struggled a bit against Ole Miss, but it could have been worse. The right side is still a work in progress, but rebounded a bit after the MTSU game, and right guard Alphonse Taylor is developing into a dependable run blocker. Center Ryan Kelly got abused for much of the Ole Miss contest, though, as Robert Nkemdiche finally woke up across from him and started playing to potential. Kelly will get a chance for redemption, with Taylor and Ross Pierschbacher flanking him at guard and Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson, who lost and then won back his job during practices last week, working at tackle.
Alabama should get ahead enough to play the second line, which is made up of J.C. Hassenauer at center, Bradley Bozeman and Dallas Warmack at the guard positions, and Lester Cotton and Brandon Greene at the tackles. ULM’s offensive line has issues in run blocking. Colby Mitchell starts at center with Jeff Savage and Frank Sutton Jr. at the guard spots and Chase Regian and Rey Baltazar at the tackles. Pass protection has been mediocre, with the Warhawks ranking 74th nationally and far behind Alabama. Not really a close call here. Advantage: Alabama
Louisiana-Monroe bases from a 3-3-5 look, which is an attempt both to get out in front of the spread offense move and to make recruiting easier, as the Warhawks have one fewer down lineman position to worry about. In theory, the 3-3-5 should result in better pass defense numbers, and ULM did just that in 2014, when it finished 14th in pass defense nationally. The Warhawks have backed it up so far in 2015, ranking 15th in passing yardage allowed, but a dismal 117th in pass efficiency defense, giving up too many big plays. The downside to the alignment, of course, can be problems in rush defense, and ULM doesn’t surprise there, either, ranking 96th so far in 2015 after finishing 84th in 2014. Alabama will counter with its 3-4 over/under scheme that has been stout against the run but troubled against the pass. Alabama ranks 9th in rushing defense, 92nd in pass defense and 74th in pass efficiency defense.
Talk about things that are no contest: Alabama’s defensive line is perhaps the finest in college football, especially against the run, as the Crimson Tide held Ole Miss under 100 yards last week. Against ULM, A’Shawn Robinson will get the call in the middle flanked by Jonathan Allen and Jarran Reed outside. Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand and D.J. Pettway provide depth at end, while Darren Lake, Josh Frazier and Daron Payne back up the interior tackle position. ULM is horrifically undersized. Nosetackle Gerrand Johnson is 6’1”, 283 pounds, and is by far the biggest player up front. Ends Ben Banogu (6’4”, 257) and Lorenzo Jackson (6’2”, 249) are more suited to end in a 4-3. Banogu is a freshman on top of that. The second line is worse off. Jackson Randle (6’1”, 258) backs up Johnson inside, while Colton Moorehead (6’3”, 257) and Caleb Tucker (6’2”, 231) are the reserve ends. ULM ought to be able to use its speed to disrupt some aspects of the Alabama offense, but the Warhawks haven’t even been that good at rushing the passer (63rd nationally). Alabama’s offensive line figures to have a field day. Advantage: Alabama
To be blunt, ULM’s linebackers don’t make many plays. And to add injury to insult, starting middle linebacker Hunter Kissinger will likely miss this game. That leaves Braxton Moore in the middle, flanked by Michael Johnson and Cody Robinson outside. There is plenty of experience here – actually plenty of experience everywhere, as only 1 ULM defensive starter is not a junior or senior – but little else. Johnson is the closest thing ULM has to a dynamic playmaker, and his SEC-appropriate size (6’1”, 230) will give him a fighting chance. But Alabama should still win this one in a walkover. Reuben Foster may be held out of this game to nurse a sore shoulder. If he doesn’t play, Shaun Dion Hamilton will start next to Reggie Ragland inside, with Keith Holcombe and Walker Jones the backups. Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee are the starters outside, although Lee won’t play much there due to the alignment. He could take over for Foster inside, however. Tim Williams, Rashaan Evans, Ryan Anderson and Christian Miller provide depth outside. Advantage: Alabama
ULM returns four starters from its talented 2014 group. Lenzy Pipkins and Trey Caldwell will start at the corners, with Tre Hunter, Justin Backus and Mitch Lane will start at the safety positions. Junior Williams gives the Warhawks a senior off the bench at corner, while Roland Jenkins, Alabama native Marquis McCullum and talented redshirt freshman Wesley Thompson provide depth at safety. Alabama counters with Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at the corners and Eddie Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith at safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Maurice Smith, Bradley Sylve and Ronnie Harrison will add depth, along with Anthony Averett and Shawn Burgess-Becker. This matchup presents a legitimate opportunity for the Warhawks to steal a category edge, thanks to two seasons’ worth of proven results. ULM has far more experience than Alabama and depth is about equal. Alabama’s Cyrus Jones is the best defensive back on either team, but the rest of the ULM unit tips the scales in the Warhawks’ favor. Advantage: Louisiana-Monroe
ULM’s Craig Ford hasn’t missed a field goal attempt, but he’s also only attempted one. He’s a redshirt freshman who has yet to kick with a game on the line. Punter Chris Qualls, a true freshman, has been nothing short of terrible – a 34.0-yard average on 12 kicks, with 1 kick blocked. To be fair, Qualls has landed half his punts inside the opponent’s 20. Alabama counters with punter J.K. Scott, who returned to form against Ole Miss after a spotty opener against Wisconsin and a so-so effort against MTSU. Placekicker Adam Griffith wobbled through his first made field goal against the Rebels, but even at 20 yards, it had the trajectory of a skulled 7-iron.
Alabama is failing to make any kind of impact on returns, but the same bad news holds for Louisiana-Monroe. Statistically, Alabama has the worst special teams in the SEC, coming in dead last in most categories. Against the Warhawks, it appears Alex Harrelson will be called upon to snap in Cole Mazza’s place once more. It’s hard to give Louisiana-Monroe an edge here due to problems in punt protection and the lack of available information about its placekicker. This is truly a case where both teams stink equally. Give Alabama the edge, then, based on athleticism alone. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, ULM in two. Both the defensive back and special teams categories could flip, perhaps quarterback as well, but at worst, Alabama is looking at a 5-3 edge – and total control of both OL/DL matchups, which is key.
The Crimson Tide desperately needs to build a big lead quickly and work on things for Georgia – not to mention sitting starters so that injuries are held to a minimum. Yes, that statement diminishes the profile of ULM and suggests the Warhawks may not be capable of pulling yet another upset in this series, but the fact remains that Alabama is far more talented than the Warhawks and has far fewer holes in its game despite the struggles against Ole Miss.
For those reasons, the most valuable outcome possible from this game would be Alabama using it as an opportunity to refocus and recommit to excellence. It has often been wondered out loud whether a team full of heralded former recruits and predicted superstars can or will respond to adversity with the same vigor as a team peppered with scrappy overachievers and hungry blue-collar types. The latter description is the label hung round the necks of the 2008 team, which combined a handful of stars with a bunch of former red-chips looking for redemption; the 2015 Alabama team is made up of the former.
If Alabama wants to have any chance of getting back into the national title hunt, it must win on the road at Georgia next week. The New Process starts here against a team it should take care of handily.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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