By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 27, 2015
Teams like Alabama are expected to win, win big, not struggle, keep everyone healthy, all without showing the next opponent anything of substance. Fail to accomplish one thing from that list and the game is often viewed as a failure, regardless of outcome.
Alabama defeated Louisiana-Monroe 34-0 on Saturday, but it wasn’t a smooth trip. Alabama was up just 14-0 at the half. The offense gained only 303 yards. Key defensive lineman Jonathan Allen was injured. And Alabama didn’t show much productivity on offense, although the jury is out on whether that was by design.
On the other hand, Alabama’s defense answered the call against a spread offense team in a big way. Alabama held ULM to 92 yards of total offense, including 83 yards through the air on 20 completions. Bama’s special teams got the kickstart it needed when placekicker Adam Griffith banged in kicks of 40 and 35 yards.
But the offense struggled and sputtered for the entire first half and portions of the second. And much of Alabama’s success on defense can be traced to the fact that ULM has about one-third the offensive talent of Ole Miss. The Warhawks’ wide receiver corps in particular got exposed, and none of the three quarterbacks ULM used had sufficient arm strength to really challenge Alabama’s secondary.
As a result, it’s unclear whether Alabama really got better during the week before it travels to Athens, Ga., to face the most difficult and complete opponent on its schedule – a team with a starting running back, Nick Chubb, who continues to take aim at records held by some guy named Herschel Walker.
But taking positives where one can find them, it appears Alabama has made a final decision about who its starting quarterback is, and is committed to building an offense based around his strengths. Defensively, Alabama has found the right mix up front and looks able to shut down quality running games.
The questions on offense, however, loom large. Can Alabama suddenly find depth at receiver? Can the tight end position get its collective act together? Is the offensive line capable of taking multiple steps forward?
If so – and if Alabama’s defense continues to come together – there isn’t a team left on Alabama’s schedule that the Crimson Tide can’t beat. But if Alabama repeats its Louisiana-Monroe performance against SEC teams, it’s a good bet Tide fans will go home unhappy at least once this season. And once is enough to kill championship dreams.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Louisiana-Monroe:
1. Jake Coker is the QB – warts and all. Alabama’s coaches appear to have pushed their chips in on a Jake Coker bet. Cooper Bateman didn’t even bother to wear a helmet or engage himself in sideline offensive huddles until late in the game when it was clear the Crimson Tide was in mop-up mode. Coker was going to get the overwhelming majority of snaps today no matter what. Coker improved as the game went along, but his first-half performance – 80 yards passing, erratic decisions and ball-security issues – was 30 minutes to forget. Alabama still lacks a deep-passing game, and Coker sprayed the ball around early. But at least Alabama knows what it’s working with now. And Coker’s improvement in the second half needs to be mentioned. His best play of the game came on the final touchdown pass to ArDarius Stewart, where Coker sidestepped the aftermath of a blown protection block attempt from true freshman RB Damien Harris and hit Stewart coming back to the pylon on the far side. Alabama needs more of that and less of the multiple stare-down throws that will get picked off by SEC secondaries.
2. Offensive line should be better than it is. This is the most disappointing unit on the field relative to the talent level. Even LT Cam Robinson appears to be in a funk, C Ryan Kelly had a substandard performance for the second week in a row and the right side of Alabama’s line has been spotty even on its best day. Somewhat surprisingly, Alabama has not tried shuffling in replacements. The performance of Kelly against ULM was made even more significant given the Warhawk defensive line averaged about 30-40 pounds less per man than did Alabama’s offensive line.
3. Receivers have tough day, and aren’t playing SEC-level football. Tight end O.J. Howard was effectively shut down, as was Richard Mullaney. Calvin Ridley dropped a sure touchdown pass and is still learning how to adjust his route at times. Stewart also had issues with route-running, but the final touchdown pass was an example of knowing how to take the coverage out of the play. The most impressive receiver may have been Cameron Sims, all things considered, as he caught 3 passes amid concerns about whether his speed had been too seriously affected by a knee injury suffered in the spring. It is beginning to appear that the mere presence of Robert Foster, who was lost for the season to a shoulder injury suffered against Ole Miss, made the rest of the group better. Without him in the lineup, ULM proved adept at limiting the damage from his still-healthy cohorts. Jake Coker’s statistics probably ended up missing 50 yards or more of dropped passes. If Alabama wants to beat Georgia or LSU, these breakdowns must cease to exist.
4. Defensive line suffers setback, but is still the best line in the country. Alabama allowed a whopping 9 yards rushing to the Warhawks, and most of that was due to a defensive line rotation pattern that gives the Crimson Tide a leg up on most competition. A week after holding Ole Miss to less than 100 yards on the ground, the Crimson Tide almost held ULM to negative yardage rushing, and found a way to put significant pressure on the quarterback without contributing any extra bodies to the effort. With Alabama having proved the concept already in its game against Ole Miss, this unit figures to be a tough nut for the Bulldog offense to crack — even without Jonathan Allen, who might miss the game after injuring his shoulder.
5. Thanks to struggles on the ground Saturday, offense still lacks an identity heading into Athens. “Offensive identity” flew past buzzword status this week and is now front-page-of-a-weekly-tabloid level in terms of both hype surrounding the concept, and obsession with the lack thereof. The problem is, it’s a legitimate concern, especially heading into a game the size and importance of Alabama’s contest with the Georgia Bulldogs. Lose here, and any hope of winning a national championship in 2015 is effectively gone out the window. Alabama’s defense ought to be in good shape, if for no other reason than it will allow the Tide to stay more in base looks and not be forced to rely so heavily on stopping the pass. But the offense doesn’t have many go-to plays it can revert to when the going gets particularly tough. Is this a power-running team? A spread team that just happens to use pro-style formations as a base? Or is it a passing team that runs the ball mostly for show? Nick Saban hasn’t said yet what he considers Alabama’s “standards” to be. The last time Alabama went to Athens, the Crimson Tide scored three rushing touchdowns using three separate running backs before it finally went to the air to Julio Jones. Alabama likely won’t have a similar opportunity this week, but winning the game becomes more important than ever thanks to Bama’s early loss.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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