By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 20, 2016
Alabama didn’t bring its A-game against Chattanooga Saturday – or its B-game, or its C-game.
What Alabama brought was good enough to win, but not good enough to keep Nick Saban from peeling the paint off the locker room walls at halftime. Alabama allowed a team that would probably win four or five games if it was on the FBS level to keep the ball too long, stop the Crimson Tide too often, and require Alabama to keep its starters in the game long enough to get at least two of them hurt.
Chattanooga – with a roster that included two former SEC linemen as transfers and at least two NFL prospects on defense – will gear up for the FCS playoffs now. Meanwhile, Alabama was casting its eyes eastward to Auburn and wondering if perhaps it should have reconsidered its self-prohibition on scheduling in-state opponents and brought Alabama A&M in for a visit instead.
Alabama, by the admission of its own coaches, didn’t have a typical week of practice. Alabama took an extra day off this week and also spent time working ahead to Auburn, because Auburn was certainly working ahead on Alabama game prep, too. In regards to actually practicing for UTC, Alabama looked like it didn’t do much during the week. Little did Saban and his assistants expect the team to nearly take the game off, as well.
Alabama led 14-3 at the half and even that was an inflated lead, thanks to UTC fumbling a punt inside the 10 and setting up a four-play drive, the ugliness of which served as the perfect microcosm of the game itself. It ended with Jalen Hurts having to use all of his abilities as a freestyler to get UTC to leave Gehrig Dieter alone in the end zone long enough to score.
The second half saw Alabama finally wear through Chattanooga’s depth. On the excitement scale, Alabama’s performance could be measured in negative numbers, with the only really interesting facet of the game being that walk-on Andy Pappanastos replaced Adam Griffith at the half and kicked both PAT attempts and the Tide’s long field goal. The final analysis is that Alabama wasn’t focused on the task at hand, and played like it.
Auburn awaits, and Alabama will surely put more energy into preparation for that game. Hopefully it will, at least, or Auburn could wind up spoiling what has been a fairly worry-free season thus far.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Chattanooga:
1. This may have been one of Lane Kiffin’s least impressive games ever as a playcaller. Alabama can ill afford to lose players at a handful of spots, and the biggest of them all is quarterback. Despite the belief that backup Cooper Bateman has improved, it’s a belief yet untested in close battle, and Alabama would just as soon not have to test it at all. Kiffin exposed Jalen Hurts to too many hits in the first half, eschewing a downhill running game for more option looks and pass plays that took some time to set up. The result was Hurts getting knocked around, and given that UTC’s starting front line would rate about mid-pack if the Mocs played in the SEC, those hits Hurts were taking … hurt. Alabama finally put the game more in the hands of its running backs in the second half and lessened Hurts’ profile. Kiffin is quick to adjust against top opposition if things aren’t working, but sometimes is stubborn about adjustments when the opponent is on UTC’s level; i.e., in his mind, things should be working, so he keeps doing them. Alabama almost won in spite of its game plan rather than because of it.
2. Priority One was to avoid injury. Alabama couldn’t pull it off. Reuben Foster re-injured a hand, Jonathan Allen seemed to tweak a knee or groin, and most worrisome, tackle Cam Robinson and guard-tackle Korren Kirven both injured shoulders. Foster and Allen quickly rejoined the game – as did Tim Williams, who got banged up a bit himself – but neither Kirven nor Robinson were able to return. Alabama has a real depth issue at tackle, especially left tackle, and given the strength of Auburn’s offensive line, Alabama needs Robinson especially to be 100 percent when the Tigers come to town next week. In the post-game, Saban said both Robinson’s and Kirven’s injuries appeared minor, but shoulder injuries for offensive tackles can be both hard to evaluate and tricky to manage. At least the Crimson Tide didn’t suffer any sure-fire season-ending injuries. The issue goes back to point No. 1, in that struggling and sleepwalking through the first half of the game had the effect of keeping the starters on the field for too long, which led to this. Saban did a good job of pulling his starters out earlier than usual, but it was a series too late for Robinson.
3. ArDarius Stewart’s absence gives reserve receivers a chance to shine. Stewart was suspended for the game for a violation of team rules, which elevated Gehrig Dieter to the No. 2 spot and brought Cameron Sims into the game as a member of the priority rotation. Dieter ended up with the whimsical statline of 3 catches, 1 yard, 2 touchdowns, thanks to a catch for negative yardage. Sims caught 4 passes for 34 yards and was physical after the catch, turning short swing passes into positive gains. Alabama has needed a fourth receiver to step up behind Dieter, Stewart and Calvin Ridley, and Sims seems to be coming on after getting hurt early in the year. Assuming Stewart will be back for Auburn, it would be nice to see Sims and Dieter continue to be contributors going forward and help this receiver group realize the potential that evaluators predicted for all of them – not just Ridley, Stewart and O.J. Howard – during the preseason.
4. Verdict on Alabama’s OL? Outlook is hazy. Even before Robinson and Kirven were knocked out of the game, the Alabama offensive line didn’t have its best night. Alabama continues to search for the right answer at right guard, where Kirven started (he had moved to LT in place of Robinson when he himself was injured) and Josh Casher played in relief. But the problems Alabama had protecting Hurts were also the result of spotty play from both Robinson and Ross Pierschbacher on the left side. Even Jonah Williams, who will almost certainly be feted with accolades after the season is over in regards to his status as a true freshman, struggled to dominate his man. As stated before, UTC has a defensive line that would be capable even at the FBS level, but a lot of Alabama’s struggles Saturday night just should not have occurred. It was also interesting late in the game when Lester Cotton finally got in – and at right guard, not tackle, where Saban said earlier in the week he would be moving. The uneven performance against Chattanooga reversed several weeks of good play, and Alabama will face the best DL it has played this season when Auburn comes to town. Stay tuned.
5. Other little-used players get a chance to shine. After Robinson and Kirven were both knocked out of the game, reserve tight end Brandon Greene switched numbers from 89 to 58 and finished the game at left tackle. By all rights, he did a good job on the fly, and presented himself as a possible solution should Robinson come up lame against Auburn. Walk-on running back Derrick Gore carried 3 times for 20 yards late in the game, taking advantage of the absence of both Bo Scarbrough and B.J. Emmons. The most interesting, though, was Ole Miss transfer Andy Pappanastos kicking in place of Adam Griffith in the second half. While it wasn’t immediately clear whether this was a result of an injury to Griffith, a change-up in job duties or just an audition for future work, the end result was that Pappanastos split the uprights three times. He doesn’t have near the leg that Griffth does, but accuracy on the short- and mid-distance kicks has been what Alabama has been lacking. Plus, with another year of eligibility left, it was good to see Pappanastos prove he is capable of taking over for Griffith, a senior, in 2017.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN