By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 7, 2016
If teams do indeed make their biggest improvement from the first to the second game, Alabama’s defense might want to call for reinforcements this week.
Alabama’s history under Nick Saban has been to open up with a big win over a ranked opponent, then flail a bit the following couple of weeks when facing substandard competition. Alabama doesn’t have that luxury this time.
Western Kentucky will likely be a bowl team in 2016, and could actually win 10 regular season games with its schedule. The Hilltoppers are coming off a 46-14 win over Rice in which WKU displayed impressive offensive prowess, particularly in the passing game. If Alabama tries to sleepwalk through this game, as it has been wont to do in the second weeks of past years, this game could get uncomfortable.
Western Kentucky is in the hands now of Jeff Brohm, who has taken Bob Petrino’s offensive schemes and expanded upon them. Western Kentucky rolled up 552 passing yards in its win over Rice, good for 2nd nationally. But the Hilltoppers are 99th in rushing offense, so Alabama might as well get used to the idea of full-time nickel and dime sets on defense and a lot of tempo and trickery. The Hilltoppers, like most teams these days, will base from a three-wide set with a single running back. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that showed promising balance in a Week 1 win over Southern Cal.
Western Kentucky’s Mike White, a South Florida transfer, certainly holds the edge here in experience, but quite frankly, his play was nothing special before landing at WKU. As a Bull, White was just 215-of-417 (51.5%) career passing, and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. One game as the Hilltopper starter is a very small sample size to assert that Mike White has suddenly turned into Danny White, but Brohm is noted as a great developer of quarterbacks; prior to becoming a head coach, Brohm was, at least once, on Nick Saban’s shortlist for an Alabama offensive coordinator. White was 25-of-31 (80.6%) in the first week for 517 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. His backup, Tyler Ferguson, has previously been at both Louisville and Penn State. White is not considered a great threat to run.
Alabama will counter with, most likely, two quarterbacks, Jalen Hurts and Blake Barnett, but Cooper Bateman might also play. Barnett started the USC game before being benched for Hurts, but it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to see Barnett start again. If he doesn’t, he seems almost certain to enter the game in the third series, which has been Bama’s m.o. whenever trying to pick a new quarterback in a contested race. It’s hard to overlook the kind of experience White brings to the table for Western Kentucky, but Alabama has far more explosiveness, even if its players at the position are virtual greenhorns. Advantage: Alabama
As good a debut as Mike White had under center for the Hilltoppers, Anthony Wales’ first game of the year was forgettable. Wales carried 15 times for 58 yards (3.9 avg.) and 2 touchdowns against Rice. Backup D’Andre Ferby got just one carry. Ferby’s career average is just under 4.0 yards per carry, but he was effective in short-yardage situations in 2015, scoring 11 touchdowns, one for every 15 carries. Wales is coming off a nearly-1,100 yard season that saw him average 7.0 yards per carry; both are on the Doak Walker preseason watch list, but it’s hard to imagine Ferby being a legitimate candidate for the award. Ferby is a load at 240 pounds, while Wales, at 190, is a speed back.
Alabama used four running backs against Southern Cal, and while the actual running of Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs was on point, all four struggled with blitz pickups and other non-ball assignments. Scarbrough also struggled to replace Derrick Henry as Alabama’s “big back.” Look for more of Harris this week, but the WKU defensive front seven is more apt to have problems with Scarbrough’s heft. Again, this is a case of statistics versus actual ability. There is no doubting Wales’ talent and past history, but Alabama makes a stronger case overall. Advantage: Alabama
Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris combined for more than 300 yards against Rice, quite a feat. Together with Nacarius Fant, they form a formidable starting threesome. Taylor is especially dangerous, coming off a 2015 season in which he caught 1,467 yards’ worth of passes. Western Kentucky will throw to backs out of the backfield often, which will be an additional challenge Alabama’s linebackers and safeties didn’t get much of last week. Depth peels off pretty quickly for WKU; Lucky Jackson, Kylen Towner and Will Bush all caught just one pass each last week despite the Hilltoppers slinging it around so much. So did tight end Shaquille Johnson. In Towner’s and Bush’s case, that one catch for each equaled their career numbers. Size is an issue for Western Kentucky; only Taylor and Jackson are over 6’0”, and both just by an inch. Shaquille Johnson is the size of a typical SEC H-back.
Alabama counters with Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart as starters, with Gehrig Dieter being the chief backup. Cameron Sims might not play this week after sustaining a mild shoulder injury toward the end of the Southern Cal game; his loss would be substantial and would likely force Raheem Falkins and Derek Kief into expanded roles. Trayvon Diggs, a two-way player, could also see some time at wide receiver, as could Xavian Marks. O.J. Howard gives Alabama a major weapon at tight end, while Hale Hentges, Brandon Greene and Miller Forristall provide depth. Bluntly put, this is the best receiver corps Alabama has perhaps ever fielded. If Sims wasn’t hurt, this one wouldn’t even be close, and might not be close anyway even without him, especially with the tight end mismatch. Advantage: Alabama
Last year’s WKU line showed good ability, other than as blockers in the running game, where the Hilltoppers finished the season ranked 89th overall. But Western Kentucky didn’t give up a lot of sacks, and had good numbers in both third-down efficiency and red zone offense. This is a veteran unit, led by Forrest Lamp and Darrell Williams at the tackles, Dennis Edwards and Brandon Ray at the guards and Max Halpin at center. Size is an issue in spots – Williams, for instance, is just 6’1”, 300 as a right tackle – but Western Kentucky won’t struggle much in-conference this year.
Alabama will start Bradley Bozeman at center, with Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton at the guard spots and Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams at tackle. The first half of Alabama’s game against USC was rough to say the least; things got better in the second half, a combination of Alabama’s three new starters getting more comfortable and Southern Cal’s thin defensive line wearing down. This one is actually closer than it looks on paper, but Alabama’s superior athleticism and skill sets win out in the end. Advantage: Alabama
The Hilltoppers will base from a 4-3 set, which has been a tough egg to crack in the past given the quality of player at its middle linebacker spot. Last year was not the best example, however: WKU finished 59th against the run, 85th in raw pass defense and 64th in pass efficiency defense. The Hilltoppers were also hampered by the lack of an effective pass rush, finishing just 79th in sacks. So far this year, it looks like much of the same will eventually be true at year’s end. Alabama counters with its vaunted 3-4 over/under that more or less shut down USC entirely.
Western Kentucky is hoping to get better pass-rush numbers this year from a combination that includes holdover Derik Overstreet and Louisville transfer Nick Dawson-Brents. Dawson-Brents certainly has the size (275 pounds) for the job, and should be more effective at setting the edge against the run that previous Hilltopper ends. Overstreet had only 2 sacks for the entire 2015 season. Inside, Omarius Bryant and JUCO transfer Chris Johnson give Western Kentucky some much-needed beef, as both players are in the 300-pound range. Reserve ends Kalvin Robinson and Tanner Reeves were both effective in limited work last year, particularly Reeves. Depth inside, however, is not good. Julien Lewis and Evan Sayner are both green, and Trae Jones will likely miss this game with an injury.
Alabama counters with Daron Payne in the middle flanked by Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen. Da’Shawn Hand backs up both ends, while Joshua Frazier steadies the middle and Dakota Ball and Jamar King offer additional help outside. Look for Alabama to rotate more heavily this week, as only the starters plus Hand played meaningful snaps before the game got out of hand. With depth concerns affecting both teams, go to the raw talent level to find your winner. Clearly the Crimson Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Western Kentucky is led by a pair of veterans, returning junior T.J. McCollum and yet another Louisville transfer, Keith Jones. Jones anchors the middle; McCollum was the team’s leading tackler a year ago and by far the most active Hilltopper behind the opposing line of scrimmage. McCollum is a UAB transfer. Joel Iyiegbuniwe rounds out the starting group. He’ll need to increase his productivity from a year ago. Veterans Drew Davis and Masai Whyte offer experience off the bench, along with newcomer Der’Quione Mobley.
Alabama will start Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton inside, while Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams will likely play more as rush ends given Alabama expects to be in nickel all day long. The Crimson Tide’s depth is substantial, with Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings available off the edge and Keith Holcombe, Rashaan Evans and Mack Wilson ready to go inside. The additions of what seems like half the Louisville scout team to the Hilltoppers’ roster gives Western Kentucky better athletes than it has been accustomed to over the years, and this group of WKU linebackers should hold their own all season long against like competition. But the Hilltoppers still lack the star power present in Alabama’s lineup. Advantage: Alabama
This is a veteran-filled group for the Hilltoppers, led by strong safety Marcus Ward, whose tackle numbers last year had enough going on behind the line of scrimmage that he could be mistaken for a linebacker. Ward is 6’3”, 210 pounds and ready to hit anything. Free safety Brandon Leston was the team’s second-leading tackler in 2015 and is also a big guy at 6’3”, 205. The common denominator here is run support; pass defense numbers from this duo weren’t so great. Ward and Leston each recorded just one interception, and their strength in pass defense is knocking balls out of hands rather than actual coverage. Joe Brown and De’Andre Simmons will start at corner. Both are average size for college corners, and Brown is adept at breaking up passes. Drell Greene offers experience off the bench at safety, while Martavius Mims and Leverick Johnson have both been around the block at cornerback.
Alabama will start Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey at corner, although Anthony Averett will play there as much as the starters will. Ronnie Harrison and Eddie Jackson will start at safety, with Laurence Jones and Deionte Thompson providing depth. Shyheim Carter and walk-on Levi Wallace provide depth at cornerback. Western Kentucky’s group certainly has the experience, and the size and hitting ability of the safeties makes one think that there is more going on here than meets the eye. But WKU has struggled with pass defense recently, perhaps the result of the lack of pass rush, perhaps the result of inconsistency in this unit. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama got off to a strong start against Southern Cal, as Adam Griffith hit on all his scoring opportunities and punter J.K. Scott threatened to knock the ceiling off Jerry Jones’ dome. Griffith’s kickoffs, though, weren’t as uniformly strong as they were at the end of last year. Western Kentucky missed one short field goal last week and there’s still competition at kicker between 2015 kickoff man Ryan Nuss and newcomer Skyler Simcox, a transfer from Emory & Henry. At least it’s not another ex-Louisville player. Western Kentucky was 65th in net punting last year behind Joseph Occhipinti, who returns this year. The Hilltoppers were nothing special in the return game. Alabama hasn’t been stupendous in special teams by any stretch, but the Crimson Tide is more settled at plackicker and has more athletes on coverage and returns. Advantage: Alabama
It’s a straight eight for Alabama, and the Crimson Tide owns both OL-DL trench matchups as well. The closest groups on the board are offensive line, thanks to Alabama’s reshuffling there, and perhaps wide receiver, thanks to the presence of Taywan Taylor, although Western Kentucky simply doesn’t have the depth.
Alabama’s biggest threat this week is internal in nature: Can Alabama get up for this game one week after a focused effort against USC? It’s hard to say, but it would be a surprise to no one if Western Kentucky had the advantage in “ups.” The Hilltoppers barely had to work to beat Rice, they came out of that game healthier than Alabama did its game against the Trojans, and this will clearly be one of those circle-the-date games for WKU.
Having said that, Alabama only loses this game if the Crimson Tide absolutely refuses to prepare at all. It won’t be a surprise if Alabama sputters around for a half of football trying to remember that it’s no longer watching the Trojans crawl off the field the way they crawled onto it. But if Western Kentucky puts an actual scare into Alabama, it might end up being the best teaching moment Nick Saban can create in 2016.
W. Kentucky 20
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN