By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 11, 2016
Alabama’s victory over Western Kentucky was as close to perfect in every way as one could ask for.
That’s because it was also as sloppy as chili-covered pizza.
Alabama doesn’t arrange its annual schedule by accident. A tough opponent in the first week is there to make the team focus up in fall camp and put some pressure on right out of the gate. Week 2 is typically against a decent opponent, usually overmatched in depth, and the wins are often sloppy and filled with things to work on in practice the following week before the SEC schedule opens up full-bore.
In that regard, Nick Saban got exactly what he wanted against Western Kentucky: Alabama won the game, was in peril for all of about 10 minutes of clock time, but committed enough mistakes that it will keep the players busy focusing on their own improvement and not on trying to avenge two consecutive losses to Ole Miss.
Does this Alabama team have some real deficiencies? Yes. After two weeks, the offensive line has a default setting of “erratic.” Like in the opener against USC, the offensive line did very little correctly in the first half before going on a roll the first 20 or so minutes of the second half. There are still depth issues to be sorted out on the defensive line. The Crimson Tide’s stable of running backs continues to be tentative at times hitting the hole, miss cutback lanes and struggle with pass protection.
On the other hand, this is also the fastest team Saban has fielded, and speed cures a lot of things. Western Kentucky has a respected passing game, and wide receiver Taywan Taylor is almost a lock to be drafted next April. But for the most part, Alabama hasn’t been affected by a passing game yet. Taylor got 59 yards on a coverage bust and then was held to short receptions (8 catches, 62 yards, no scores) thereafter.
As expected, Nick Saban coached to the very end Saturday, getting into spirited discussions (“ass chewings” was the label he himself affixed to them in the post-game press conference) with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, a handful of officials and more than a handful of players.
If Alabama is going to compete for a national title in 2016, it will probably have to do so without the cursory loss to Ole Miss next week, just to be safe. The Rebels are already 1-1 on the year and aren’t the media darlings they were a year ago. Injuries have already weakened Ole Miss and threaten the Rebels’ ability to stay in the run for a playoff spot even with a win over Alabama. Moreover, the SEC continues to look soft in the middle, although wins by Tennessee and Arkansas over opponents from the ACC and Big 12, respectively, will help that problem somewhat. Alabama needs to get the Rebel monkey off its back to send a message that the Tide is a team capable of overcoming past mistakes.
As far as overcoming the mistakes of this week go, Alabama has a lot of work to do. Western Kentucky was the perfect opponent at the perfect time for this kind of performance, because Alabama could use this game as a developmental laboratory without worrying about an overabundance of consequences. Next week’s opponent won’t give Alabama the same talent cushion.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Western Kentucky:
1. The QB battle is all but over. Jalen Hurts has turned in two solid performances in a row. Excepting the first snap of his career against USC, which resulted in a fumble, he has shown remarkable consistency in his play, to go along with playmaking ability that is decidedly top-shelf. Blake Barnett, in both games, has been streaky. Guessing which approach Nick Saban prefers doesn’t take a football genius. Hurts still makes a mistake or two every now and then – his deep cross to O.J. Howard to set up Alabama’s first touchdown would have been virtually a guaranteed pick if thrown against an SEC secondary – but he has shown uncommon coolness and grasp of schemes in the first two weeks. Hurts looks more like a redshirt sophomore than a true freshman with an extra spring practice under his belt. It wouldn’t be a total shock to see Barnett get a series or two against Ole Miss, but at this point, it would be unexpected. Look for Alabama to devote all the first-team practice reps to Hurts this week.
2. Running backs made the OL look worse than it was … Damien Harris never got completely on track in this game, although he never took a loss of yardage. Harris missed a couple of fairly obvious cutbacks over the course of the game and still needs work in the passing game. Bo Scarbrough ran tentatively until late in the game, but he’s Alabama’s only true power option at the moment and he’s probably the best pass protector out of all the backs. True freshman B.J. Emmons showed a lot of flash late, but Western Kentucky was heaving by that time due to the extreme heat and lack of shade on the visiting sideline. Emmons’ best play may have been a nice blitz pickup, because such awareness shows he’s getting close to being an option when the game is on the line. Joshua Jacobs didn’t get much work today, but walk-on Derrick Gore got a carry. There’s a lot to like here from a pure talent standpoint, but it seems as if most of Alabama’s successful runs are on plays where the OL has hit every assignment and the team is simply waiting for a running back to cash in. There aren’t a lot of creative yards being run up here, and Alabama needs that now.
3. … but the OL needs to make monumental improvement, and fast. Simply put, an overall OL effort matching the ones of the last two weeks will get Alabama beaten by Ole Miss. The mid-second through early fourth quarter of the USC game was solid, as was much of the third and early fourth quarter of this game, but that’s not good enough. Alabama needs a four-quarter effort. Penalties, high shotgun snaps, lack of drive blocking in the running game and general inconsistency are just some of the things Alabama is fighting against right now. Pass blocking has been the greatest strength so far, but Alabama seems to bracket a good protection effort with two subpar efforts. Alphonse Taylor returned from a suspension this week, but he looked rusty. The right side of the line as a whole needs work. It will be interesting to see whether Brandon Greene plays more at tight end against Ole Miss, as he effectively gives Alabama a sixth lineman on the field. The running backs haven’t been a big part of the passing game yet, in large part due to them staying in the backfield to help pass block. These complaints are nothing new during the Saban years, as a quick recall of second-game recaps in past years shows similar complaints. Now’s the time to see if this year’s line can start to climb out of the hole the way past lines did.
4. DL depth is about to show its true form. Alabama worked in Dakota Ball with the 1s for much of the day and it paid off. Ball recorded 5 tackles – tied for second on the team behind Reuben Foster – and a half-sack. Ball is undersized for an interior tackle but plays with great leverage and has decent quickness. Raekwon Davis got his first action, as did O.J. Smith, and both looked like they could offer some relief in coming weeks. Davis, as expected, was a mismatch for the WKU offensive line when he played. Jamar King and Josh Frazier didn’t play, a significant surprise in the latter’s case given how much work Frazier got against USC. Assuming Davis and Smith are capable of giving Alabama quality snaps, that would give Alabama seven players in the rotation (along with Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Ron Payne, Da’Shawn Hand, Jonathan Allen and Ball), which should be enough to get Alabama through most of the season, presuming everyone stays healthy. If the coaches don’t feel that Smith is an option or that Davis is ready yet, the panic button is getting ready to blink.
5. Younger players starting to get more comfortable with their roles. Trayvon Diggs played both ways in this game, and managed to get open for a nice pass completion. On defense, either Diggs or CB Levi Wallace botched an assignment on Western Kentucky’s late touchdown, but watching Diggs play it’s clear what the coaches saw in him. LB Mack Wilson revealed two things Saturday: He’s Alabama’s backup punter, and he also plays a mean fullback. Wilson cleared the deck for Bo Scarbrough’s short touchdown run in the fourth quarter and saw his snaps on special teams increase. Shyheim Carter looks to be on the verge of seeing more action at corner, and although not technically a young player, junior CB Anthony Averett was solid in just his second game playing significant snaps. Other younger Tiders who continue to make their mark included TE Miller Forristall, WR Derek Kief and LB Christian Miller.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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