I'd like to start by patting myself on the back for my revised pick on the Arkansas game. My predicted 31-27 Bama win wasn't too far off from the 24-20 actual Bama win. In fact, they were two endzone interceptions away from hitting that score exactly. Although I'm not complaining. It's a really good thing Ryan "First Half Heisman" Mallett tossed that 2nd quarter pick to Robert Lester. 24-7 at the half is a whole different ball game than 17-7.
In the end, I think that whole game was sort of a microcosm of the entire season so far: the offense only got stopped when they stopped themselves (2 crummy interceptions, failing to execute simple plays like screen passes), the special teams were solid, and the defense gave up big plays but ultimately made enough plays of their own to win it.
As awful as the defense was in the 1st half, I think these young guys showed a glimpse of what they're capable of in the 2nd half. You learn who someone really is when their back is up against the wall, and, boy, were these guys' backs ever up against the wall. In fact, I think that was sort of the theme for the game.
In that situation, you either quit and pack it in for next week (can't win with 'em, in the words of Mike Singletary), or you just let go of all the fear and insecurities, say, "If I'm going down, I'm going down on my own terms," then go fly around the field trying to make plays and let the chips fall where they may. The Bama defense opted for the latter. They started punishing the receivers before, during, and after they caught the football. They started hitting Mallett on nearly every drop.
And before you knew it, Bama was in their heads. All of the sudden, those high-flying receivers were dropping simple catches because they were wondering where Nico Johnson and Mark Barron were coming from next. And Mallett, oh, Mallett...The guy started flopping like a soccer player and working fake injuries like a pro wrestler. He totally folded under pressure. If he had spent less time crying to the refs, who knows how the game might have played out. But that's just who he is. When the tables were turned, he couldn't match Bama's intensity. He mentally checked out. That's what separates the great teams and the great players from the also-rans.
I told you guys to take McElroy when it came to "winning time." This game just confirmed what we knew about him already. For the record, here are his stats by half:
1st: 9 for 13, 97 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
2nd: 9 for 13, 97 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs
That's it. Not flashy at all, but that's all it takes to be a winner. Just keep your head on straight. Minimize your mistakes. Let the game come to you and then take it what it gives you. A string of cliches, yes, but also utterly true. Do you think Mallett would trade some of his 357 yards for about 2 less interceptions and a win right now?
The big question for Bama moving forward is this: For all the "growing up" the defense did in the 2nd half against Arkansas, will they be mature enough to maintain that level of play for the rest of the season, or will they continue to be immature and have to be pushed up against the wall again before they remember how to play? If they keep playing to the standard they set in the second half, Bama fans can go ahead and start making their reservations in Glendale, because no one is going to beat them.
Time for some 1st month acknowledgements!
Bama's Most Pleasant Surprise So Far: This was a little difficult to pick since the season has mostly played out exactly as I imagined, but I'd go with the kicking specialists (Cade Foster, Jeremy Shelly, and Cody Mandell). I had targeted this as THE major weakness of the team, even more so than the secondary, but all 3 have acquitted themselves well through the first 4 games. Their kicks don't always look pretty, but they get the job done. Fortunately, we haven't had to see Foster or Shelly attempt a kick for the win or a tie late in the game as of yet. I'd like to keep it that way.
Bama's Biggest Disappointment So Far: This one was easy. But as poorly as the secondary has played at times, it's not them. I expected their play to be spotty, so I can't say they've "disappointed" expectations. Instead, I'm looking at you, Pass Rush. Coming into the season, this was expected to be the strength of the defense and the saving grace of those young defensive backs. But through 4 games, the pass rush has been as spotty as the coverage. It's shown up when Bama needed it the most (Penn State's forays into the redzone, late against Arkansas) but largely has been MIA. Granted, there are some legitimate excuses for this. Bama's #1 pass rusher, Marcell Dareus, missed 2 games due to suspension and injured his ankle early against Arkansas. Likewise, Bama's #2 pass rusher, Courtney Upshaw, suffered a high ankle sprain in the first game of the season and has been gradually working his way back into the lineup ever since. You could even make the case that the coaching staff held back most of it's pressure packages through the first 3 games. Those are all clearly mitigating circumstances. But I don't see how it can completely excuse the lack of a rush against Duke or San Jose State, or even Penn State. Guys like Darrington Sentimore, Damion Square, and Ed Stinson should be able to eat up the likes of those teams on talent alone. This MUST improve.
Guys Playing Well Under the Radar: Not a lot of under the radar guys on offense. You mostly know the names there. I do think Preston Dial's emergence as a receiving threat out of the H-back spot is an underrated development for the offense, especially as a weapon in the redzone. However, I'd like to point out two guys on defense. First, true freshman inside linebacker CJ Mosely. The fact that he's a true freshman getting playing time in a loaded linebacking corps tells you all you need to know about what Saban thinks of this kid. He's proven himself to be a very intellectual and instinctual player (a deadly combination), and when he's on the field, you can bet he'll be wherever the ball is. It wouldn't shock me if he takes somebody's starting job THIS season, but just wait until he gets a full year in the strength & conditioning program. Yikes. Secondly, I'd point you toward redshirt junior nose guard Nick Gentry. To this point in his career, Gentry has mostly been just a guy filling a roster spot, seeing minimal playing time in blowout situations. However, with the departure of Terrence Cody and the coaching staff experimenting with Kerry Murphy at defensive end, Gentry has begun to see significant time platooning with Josh Chapman. And he's played very well. He's been a surprisingly sharp pass rusher, including putting a nasty hit on Ryan Mallett that I believe may have been the one that had him tapping out for good. Watch out for him as the season progresses.
Defensive Player of the Month: Robert Lester, safety. I feel like my love/hate relationship with him is already well documented. He can either be the goat or the GOAT, depending on the play. There's no middle ground with him. Though I think as a general rule, if it's a run play, something bad is probably going to happen. That said, the guy is growing into the definition of a ballhawk, with 4 interceptions in 4 games and a fumble recovery to boot. As mentioned above, his endzone pick on Ryan Mallett may have been a game-saver. Once he learns how to take pursuit angles and finish tackles, he's going to be All-SEC, right up there with Mark Barron.
Offensive Player of the Month: Trent Richardson, running back. Through 4 games, he's amassed 764 all-purpose yards and 6 total TDs. He showed he was more than capable of being The Man at running back in the absence of Mark Ingram. Even with the return of Ingram, he's remained productive when he's gotten his opportunities. And I must say I've been surprised at how well he's adapted to his new role as the primary kick returner. Nobody is touching Javier Arenas as a punt returner, but I think Trent may have already surpassed him as a kick returner. He has greater top end speed than Javy did, and he returns kicks with the same intensity he plays every other down. Good luck, walk-ons and 2nd and 3rd stringers on the kick coverage team. Speaking of which, who is the crazy genius on Bama's staff that has him ON THE KICK COVERAGE TEAM, too? That should be against the rules.
I'll be back later in the week to talk about this weekend's game with Florida.