WCU preview: Just don’t get anyone hurt

 

It’s the headline that says it all: A week after watching Tua Tagovailoa’s Alabama career seemingly come to an end, prematurely, at Scott Field in Starkville, Alabama faces off against Western Carolina in a game that should serve to further the cause of Senior Day and walk-on football more than as a chance for Alabama’s still-prolific offense to run up a record number of points.

Yet, the Crimson Tide can’t completely take the day off. This is Mac Jones’ team now, and Alabama has to get him ready to face Auburn and whatever else comes down the pike after that. Alabama has to run its full offense and has to expose Jones to some potential damage.

Western Carolina comes into this game with a record of 3-8, but the Catamounts are winners of two of their last three games. They will not challenge Alabama.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Because readership interest in previews of FCS teams – especially bad ones, like Western Carolina – is borderline at best, we’re going to eschew our usual format for a preview issue and talk about the game in more general terms.

OFFENSE

Western Carolina runs what amounts to be a single-back, option-based offense. If that sounds like something similar to what Auburn will run next week, you’re not far off, and now you know why this game is scheduled when it is. This is to get Alabama ready for its fight with the Tigers next Saturday. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end. Western Carolina ranks 97th in FCS in total offense (out of 124 teams), 61st in rushing offense and 95th in passing offense. Alabama shouldn’t have to do much to shut this down. The Crimson Tide, even sans Tua, will utilize a multiple, pro-style passing spread attack. The Crimson Tide ranks 8th in total offense, 65th in rushing and 3rd in passing. Expect the rushing numbers to go up and the passing numbers to come down a bit now that Jones is the quarterback of record.

OFFENSIVE UNIT ANALYSIS
As one would expect, Alabama leads across the board here, from quarterback to offensive line and everything in between. In addition to missing Tua, Alabama will probably not utilize Henry Ruggs III in this game at receiver. He suffered an injury to his upper body last week, reportedly to the ribs. Jaylen Waddle is expected to start in his place, but expect to see plenty of guys like Tyrell Shavers and Slade Bolden early in the game. Also keep a close eye on Jahleel Billingsley at tight end, who has made strides since getting more playing time in Miller Forristall’s absence.

As for Western Carolina, the Catamounts will probably use two quarterbacks, although Alabama will get far more of Tyrie Adams than Will Jones, most likely. Jones isn’t a bad athlete at all, but he’s nothing like Adams, a true dual-threat quarterback who will probably prove to be the quickest quarterback Alabama sees in 2019. As a passer, he’s not bad: an efficiency rating of 143.0 and 11 touchdowns against just 5 picks, but WCU makes its hay on the ground. In the running game, Adams leads the team with 5 touchdowns and is the third-leading rusher behind Donnavan Spencer and Connell Young, but neither of them is particularly scary. Caleb Ferguson has been a big-play back when he’s played, but it’s unclear how many opportunities he’ll get here.

The Catamount offensive line – Matthew Bair, Isaiah Helms, Tyler Smith and Grady Thomas, primarily – is borderline. The fifth spot has rotated between three players the entire season. Only Helms has SEC size, but that’s not all there is to OL play. WCU is 89th in sacks allowed and 62nd in tackles for loss allowed.

Offensive summary: Alabama leads strongly in all four categories. The closest call ends up being quarterback just because Alabama hasn’t seen a lot of guys like Adams yet – and even that category is solidly UA-friendly.

DEFENSE

Western Carolina is dead last in FCS in rushing defense (124th), ranks 93rd in total defense and 97th in pass efficiency defense. Somehow through all that, the Catamounts manage to rank 6th in raw pass defense. Translation: People run like crazy on them, don’t throw much because they don’t have to, but when they do throw, it goes for big chunks. Alabama’s defense seemed to stiffen last week after Tua’s loss, as if Alabama realizes it’s going to take extra effort from guys who haven’t been all that reliable so far this year.

DEFENSIVE UNIT ANALYSIS
WCU ranks 100th in sacks and 96th in tackles for loss. It doesn’t take long to see where the problem is. The defensive line has been a merry-go-round all season, with only one player, K.J. Milner, starting double-digit games. For that matter, only one other lineman has even played in double digit games, and that’s Ezekiel Jennette, all 5’11, 235 pounds of him. Torrion Stevenson may be the guy to watch out for, but really, there’s not a lot to watch out for at all.

That changes a bit at linebacker. WCU has one bona fide star on the team, transfer linebacker Jayden Pauling, who came from tiny Louisville College. In 11 games, 6 of them starts, Pauling has amassed 50 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. The team as a whole has only 16 sacks, so Pauling has more than 40 percent of the team total. He’s also got good size at 6’3” and 225 pounds, making one wonder how he slipped through the cracks during the recruiting process. Alabama will actually have to pay him a fair bit of attention. Ty Harris and Trevor Childers both have at least 7 tackles for loss and can be active. The secondary has 4 interceptions total, 3 of them from John Brannon III, a senior safety with good size. As for special teams, Western Carolina has struggled about as much as Alabama has punting. The Catamounts have used three different punters, including the running back Caleb Ferguson. Not one of them averages more than 40 yards a kick. Returns have been uninspiring, and kick and punt return defense is among the worst in FCS. Three different placekickers have been used, although Julian Pletz seems to be competent.

Alabama’s primary concern is health, to the point that D.J. Dale and Raekwon Davis will likely not play in this game, and Phidarian Mathis might not, either. If that occurs, Alabama is going to be using Braylen Ingraham, who has one series under his belt all year, and Ishmael Sopsher, who hasn’t played yet, in the top rotation. Tevita Musika, a senior, will likely get his first career start on Senior Day. There is some concern here as Alabama has to deal with an option offense using a defensive line that will play eight players, tops, six of them freshmen. The rest of the defense will probably play as it usually does, rotation-wise.

Defensive summary: Linebacker isn’t a runaway Alabama lead, but Alabama still controls it and overwhelming controls the other three subcategories (yes, including special teams). This will be a chance to build defensive line depth more than anything else.

OVERALL

If this were a full-length preview, Alabama would be a straight-eight winner. If you want a summation of the OL-DL cross matchups, run a Kia Soul head-on into a Norfolk Southern locomotive, and there shouldn’t be a need to ask which team is the train.

If Tua were healthy, Alabama would probably hit 50 before halftime. Western Carolina is truly one of the worst FCS teams Alabama has scheduled in awhile. There are 2-3 Catamount defensive players worth watching, and the quarterback isn’t bad. Other than that, fans of pure football will stay away from this one. WCU special teams are worth watching just to see where the next breakdown will come from.

Again, the chief goal here is simply to not get anyone hurt. Accomplish that, and it’s a success.

Alabama 59
W. Carolina 0

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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