Monday, October 16, 2017

Tire Store Report -- Arkansas

Thanks for filling in for your father and legator in his absence.  A splendid job.  He will be proud of you and your efforts.

OK, we might as well get this out of the way at the beginning.  We said last week that Matt Austin's sorry officiating crew was considered one of the better ones in the SEC.  Saturday night was evidence of the fact that that distinction is sort of like being the highest scoring player on the Washington Generals basketball team.

Alabama finally had an opponent called for holding on the offensive line.  It took a full-on MMA style take down effort to get the flag, but it did happen.  We suspect it wasn't that Arkansas was holding any worse than, say, Mississippi or Texas A&M, it is just that various media members were talking about it publicly and (we hope) University officials were discussing it privately with the Conference office.  That doesn't mean that the game was well-called.  For the second time in two weeks a very questionable pass reception by the other team did not merit a review.  Which is ok, if the new rule is that we aren't going to look at as many plays as we have.  Though they then have to explain why a catch by Ridley (correctly called on the field and confirmed by the replay booth) was reviewed for several minutes.  Perhaps close play reviews that might benefit Alabama just aren't allowed now.

The Umpire in Saturday's game (we do not know his name, we call him Keymaster because he wears a pair of thick black glasses that make him look like the Rick Moranis character in Ghostbusters) nearly lost his life.  Look, we understand that the officials have to stand somewhere in the field of play to do their job.  However, when the offensive line opens a gaping hole up the middle and #34 starts through it, you probably want to move to one side or the other of his projected path.  Instead, it was like Keymaster just froze.

Maybe he was doing one of those hard math calculations -- Mass x Acceleration = Pain.  Or maybe his brain just froze like a small furry animal on the railroad tracks while the 7:18 from Tuscaloosa is roaring right at it, horn blowing and lights shining and totally terrifying.  Or maybe it is in the Official SEC Officiating Handbook for Dummies (oops, redundant) "In the event a gigantic human being is bearing down on you at a high rate of speed during the course of play, close your eyes, click your heels together three times and say 'there's no place like home.'"  Whatever.

Usually we are in the school of not being too critical if we probably couldn't do it any better.  But y'all, this happened twice.  We might have just stood there and tried not to ruin our fancy white knickers the first time.  The second time we'd at least have run towards the sideline a step or two, trying not to scream like Mr. Poole did that time the 2-inch hose blew on the hydraulic lift while he was in the grease pit.  Enough being funny.  That zebra gets his posterior out of the way and we think Harris and Alabama have another touchdown. Maybe next time Harris should just truck him and we'll see if his replacement has any better reflexes.

People say that Alabama fans are paranoid.  Maybe.  Even paranoids have real enemies.  If the various officiating crews in the SEC cannot fairly be characterized as Alabama's enemies, let us hope we don't ever make any.

The A grade for the defense was well-deserved.  This bunch is getting better week by week.  Isaiah Buggs (who we hope is ok) is filling in nicely for Da'Shawn Hand.  LaBryan Ray has gotten quality snaps.  Josh Frazier is making an impact at nose.  So overall, the depth along the defensive line should be coming up to standard.  Former walkon Levi Wallace (note: apparently you have to say it that way every time, as CBS and ESPN insist on doing) has quietly become a national leader at his position.  Despite missing three key defensive starters from opening day, it just never felt like the Razorback offense was much of a threat.  If their offensive line keeps playing like it did Saturday, they are going to need 275-pound quarterbacks, just to take the pounding.  The play of our defensive front is a compliment to our recruiting, coaching, and the hard work of the individual players to realize their potential.

We agree that watching the offense can be frustrating.  Hurts threw two roll out passes that were just beautiful.  Never even tried it again.  The offensive line, especially on the left side, continues to open holes so wide you could push, not drive, a Dodge Dart through them.  Pass blocking is still a work in progress, especially along the right side.  And the play-calling, well, it seems to us like even though we are headed for the eighth game of the season we are still using actual games to experiment with different plays on offense.  I guess it's good if you can get away with it.  We agree with you, CS&H, it can make for very frustrating viewing.   Saban himself described it as "vanilla".

Minkah Fitzpatrick, who could arguably be named All-SEC at about three different positions, got included in a nifty little ESPN graphic about the Heisman, though we don't know why they insist on using the same format for it that the local news uses to show the four guys being sought in connection with the liquor store hold up.  Perhaps he will get the courtesy defensive player invitation to New York.  We hope so.  What we cannot figure out is why Damien Harris is never mentioned.  All the TV talking heads want to say that the award is Saquon Barkley's to lose.  We agree he is an exciting athlete -- so far this season he has 102 carries for 649 yards and 6 TDs.  Very impressive.  Harris has 68 carries for 625 yards and 9 TDs.   Maybe he just doesn't play enough.  Can you imagine the numbers if Harris was not on a team with four or five other quality running backs?  Anyway, it just struck us that perhaps, just perhaps, there are other pretty good players out there that aren't getting enough attention.

Although the question wasn't very artfully worded, Saban did give a response at his press conference about the punt muffs.  Apparently a technique error noted by the staff needs to be remedied.  Namely, the players are coached to get their fingertips up at eye level so that there isn't a blind spot before they catch the ball.  Sounds fairly detailed.  We guess the real issue is the pressure-inducing decision-making process -- do I run? Fair catch? Let it bounce? This just has to get cleaned up.  Our punter gives us the chance to flip the field on every exchange of punts -- but not if we ricochet the ball off our chests towards 11 on-rushing players from the other team every time.  Sheesh.

One other thing on special teams.  We agree that the kicking game is important and therefore using your best players for it makes sense.  Given Harris's value to the over all effort though, we are not sure that someone else couldn't handle his spot on punt coverage.  We saw a little whiff of just how bad that could turn out Saturday night.   Would an opposing punt player consider taking a shot at one of the best running backs in college football? 

With that said, we are happy to say that our place kicking seems to be settling down.   For fear of jinxing it before the rest of the season, we'll just tap gently on the wooden counter top and say no more.

On to Tennessee.  Yes, it's been over 4000 days.  Yes, their program appears to be a mess.  Yes, we saw last year's game.  We still owe these guys.  We owe them big.  We expect the coaches will be focused on reminding the players to play up to Alabama's standards, not just meeting the level of the competition.  There's lots of speculation that this will be Butch "Sgt. Carter" Jones's last visit to Tuscaloosa as the head coach at Tennessee.  We hope Alabama turns in the sort of performance that makes him happy he doesn't have to return in 2019.  They low down, they dirty....

Roll Tide, everyone.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Arkansas Grades


I am, perhaps, a glass half-empty kind of person.  It's not that I'm overly negative or pessimistic, it's just that I'm too eager to see the minor failures amidst the major successes.  Maybe "glass half-empty" is too harsh; perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I focus too much on the cloud despite the brilliant, glowing silver lining.

It's from that perspective that I approach this week's grades.  By any objective measure, Alabama played very well against an inferior opponent, that being the fighting Pigs from Arkansas.  Bama won by more than 4 touchdowns, and the score wasn't really reflective of how thoroughly Bama owned the game.  The contest was, for all intents and purposes, over when Bama took a 17 - 0 lead midway through the first quarter.  But, I find it hard to get overly excited about beating up on an undeniably bad team.

However, if this weekend proves anything, it's to never take any win for granted.  If it's difficult to get excited about beating an inferior opponent, then I would be wise to recall how it feels to lose such a game.  Ask Clemson (lost at Syracuse), or Washington (lost at Arizona State), Washington St (blown out at Cal).  All three were undefeated Top 10 teams, and all took it on the chin from far weaker competition.  We can throw Auburn into that mix, as well, as they came in to Baton Rouge with 1-loss and a Top 10 ranking.  After building a 20 - 0 first half lead, the barners were outscored the rest of the way by an astounding 27 - 3.

So, yes, it is important to appreciate the fact that Alabama did exactly what they were supposed to do in easily dispatching an SEC also-ran.

But, Bama played far from a perfect game, and as such they will receive far from perfect grades.  Here's how I saw it:


Bama gained 496 yards of offense with 308 of those coming on the ground.  The Tide ran it 43 times for an average of 7.2 yards per carry.  Damien Harris continues to be the offense's bell cow, rushing 9 times for 125 yards and 2 TDs.  4 other backs carried the ball, with Bo Scarbrough getting 7 touches for 65 yards.  Jalen Hurts had 10 carries for 41 yards and a TD, though his numbers are affected by sacks (college football desperately needs to adjust how sack totals are assessed).  Hurts moved to second all-time, behind the great Harry Gilmer, in the Alabama record books for rushing yards by a quarterback.

Hurts was 12-of-19 passing for 155, including a beautiful 20 yard TD strike to Henry Ruggs III.  Ruggs has 4 catches on the year, all of them for touchdowns.  If he's only going to catch touchdowns, maybe we should throw the ball to Ruggs more often.  Hurts also notched his first interception of the year on a pass where his receiver was open, but the ball was thrown behind him.  The Tide's leading receiver, as always, was Calvin Ridley, who had 4 catches for 51 yards.  7 different receivers caught at least one pass.

The offense had 4 drives of over 60 yards, all of which resulted in touchdowns.  They went 5-for-11 on third downs.  However, I could not award an A after the offense went 3-and-out three times in the first half.


The stop troops had a very solid outing.  They held Arkansas to only 227 total yards, which included a paltry 27 yards rushing on 29 attempts (yes, the Pigs netted less than a yard per carry).  Bama had 9 tackles for loss, with Rashaan Evans leading the way with 3.5

Injury forced Arkansas to give Cole Kelley his first start at quarterback, and while the young man didn't have an amazing game, one cannot fault his toughness.  He got hit a lot, and kept standing into to deliver the ball.  He was also very difficult to bring down, which makes the Tide's 5 sacks all the more impressive.  Evans once again led the way with 2 sacks, while Shaun Dion Hamilton and Raekwon Davis each had 1.5.  Mack Wilson also snagged a late interception on a tip by Hootie Jones.

Arkansas went 5 for 18 on third down, which is good, but they managed 2 for 3 on fourth down, which is not.

I didn't feel that an A+ was deserved after the second unit gave up a garbage time touchdown drive that was aided by more than 40 yards of penalties.

Placekicking - A+

JK Scott was solid on kickoffs, with several touchbacks.  The kicks that were returned were met with solid coverage, all but once limiting the Hogs to worse starting field position than they would have had on a touchback.  Ruggs returned two kicks for a total of 40 yards.

Andy Pappanastos was 2/2 on field goals and 5/5 on extra points.

Punting - D-

The only reason the punt units received a passing grade is that Scott averaged 43.7 yards on three punts and did not allow a return.

Our punt returners have become the single biggest concern on this team.  After dropping multiple punts thru the first 6 weeks of the season, the bottom dropped out last night.  Ruggs muffed two kicks, losing one.  Trevon Diggs muffed another.  To put it kindly, this is unacceptable.  The single most important job of a punt returner is to catch the ball.  If there is no one on the roster who is capable of doing so, then the coaches should simply put 11 guys on the line and try to block every punt.  It may cost the Tide field position, but it won't come with the risk of giving the ball right back to the opponent.

Coaching - D+

Jeremy Pruitt and the defensive staff earned the same letter grade as their players.  The defense was well prepared, and played solid football until the second stringers came in at the end.

Special teams coach Bobby Williams also earned the same letter grade as his unit.  The Tide absolutely must get better in this area.

The most concerning aspect of the Tide's coaching efforts in on the offensive side of the ball.  Brian Daboll's playcalling is, at times, absolutely baffling.  There was a joke around North Carolina basketball in the 80s that posited that the only person capable of stopping Michael Jordan was UNC head coach Dean Smith.  The same seems to be equally true of Daboll and the Bama running game.  For example: Damien Harris has gained 625 yards on the season on only 68 carries.  That's an average on over 9 yards per carry.  He has 9 touchdowns.  Harris has yet to touch the ball 15 times in any game this season.  With all due respect to the other backs on the roster, Harris should be touching the ball more often.  If this is simply an effort to save Harris' legs, then I can accept that.  But I would need to see it over the last half of the year.

But it goes beyond that.  Daboll has a Kiffin-esque tendency to call passes and misdirections even when running right up the gut has worked to perfection.  Take the first two series of the game.  On the first play of the game, Harris took a counter play and ran thru a massive hole created by the offensive line.  75 yards later, Bama was on the board.  After going 3-and-out, Arkansas gifted Alabama the ball at their own 25 after a botched snap on the punt.  Rather than going right up the middle again, Bama went pass, outside run, pass, field goal.  That is inexcusable.  Daboll also has an infuriating habit of calling for long, slow-developing pass plays rather than running screens, slants, or intermediate routes.  Opponents have been bull-rushing these plays and disrupting them behind the line because Hurts has to keep the ball too long.

Look, I am not a football coach.  No one in his right mind would ever pay me to call plays.  But I understand the simple logic "Do what works until it doesn't."  There is no sense in doing what works until you feel like doing something that doesn't.  Bama's offensive playcalling and execution is not, at the moment, good enough to beat the top teams in the country.  This must improve and it must improve in a hurry.

[takes a deep breath]

Okay.  It's out of my system.  I can truly appreciate another solid effort from Alabama in a year that's been full of them.  This win may go a long way in costing Arkansas head coach Curly Howard his job.  Howard is in his fifth season in Fayetteville, and the Hogs are 27-30 under his watch (10-25 in the SEC).  Howard has learned the hard way that the SEC is not the Big 10.

Bama's next opponent, the Volunteers from Tennessee, also employ a coach squarely on the hot seat.  Lyle Jones' squad is 3-3 (0-3 in the SEC) and has not scored a touchdown in over ten quarters of play.  Tennessee is terrible against the run.  Bama must pound them, pound them again, and pound them some more.  There is no such thing as running up the score on Tennessee.

I am responsible for the grades for one more week, and I truly believe that next week will bring a silver lining that keeps even me from seeing the cloud.

Roll Tide,
The Commissioner's Son and Heir