Sunday, October 10, 2010

In Perspective: Bama's First Loss

Now that the dust has settled on Alabama's first loss since January of 09, it's time to put it in perspective. I'll get the obvious part out of the way: Losing sucks, a'ight? I was as despondent as anyone while I waited for this game to just...end. But anyone with a realistic perspective on things knew that Bama wasn't going to go undefeated forever. And the Shula years weren't THAT long ago, so I'm still well versed in how to cope with tough losses. So this isn't going to be a blog for crying or moaning about the offensive playcalling or how McElroy needs to get benched or whatever else people are pouting about today. If that's what you're after, it's out there. Believe me, I've read it already. I'm just going to try and take the most objective look possible at what went wrong against South Carolina and what it means for the 2nd half of the season.

We'll start by taking a look at something I said before the season started in that thing I'm always linking to:

"And, as much as it might pain me to say this, it’s naïve to think the secondary won’t cost us at least one game this season. It’s also pretty naïve to think the kicking game won’t cost us a game."

I've seen this perfect storm on the horizon for a long time. I thought it was coming in Arkansas, but the kicking teams actually played well in that game, and I had hoped maybe it had passed us by. But, nope, it was just a little delayed.

Consider this: Placekicker Jeremy Shelly missed a chipshot field goal and an extra point. That's 4 points off the board for Bama. Then you had punter Cody Mandell's 1st quarter shank that set up South Carolina in excellent field position for it's 2nd touchdown of the day to go up 14-3. Now, let's say that the kickers, long snappers, and holders don't screw up those plays. That's an eleven (11) point swing in the game. Instead of a 35-21 game, maybe you're only looking at a 28-25 game. That's a very, very different situation that allows the Tide to keep the ball in the hands of Ingram and Richardson, it's best players, late in the game.

I realize there are a lot of if's, but's, and maybe's inherent in that scenario. And with the way Alshon Jeffery was abusing Bama's secondary, it's very possible, some might say "likely," that South Carolina would have scored to go up 14-3 with or without the shanked punt. I just point out these miscues to emphasize the critical impact they had on the game. Leigh Tiffin, PJ Fitzgerald, Brian Selman...we need you right now. (Not that Tiffin was above missing the occasional extra point.)

Okay, so now that we've established the myriad ways in which Bama suffered self-inflicted wounds in the kicking game, let's get to the defense. Apparently, rumors that these guys had "arrived," which may or may not have been propagated by this blog, were greatly exaggerated. In fact, maybe escaping from Arkansas with a win wasn't a good thing for them. Maybe it just reinforced some inner belief that they could skate through the SEC on that same level of play. Florida showing up in Tuscaloosa DOA couldn't have helped matters. And, if that's the case, they were wrong, in every possible way. They actually failed in EVERY area I highlighted in this week's Unsolicited Advice. Let's take a look at how that went:

1. The Team must maintain a sharp mental focus: A complete failure here. My main point of emphasis here was that Bama needed to at LEAST "let their strengths be their strengths." And by that, of course, I'm referring to running the ball and stopping the run. The Bama offense's running game was somewhat taken out of the game by falling into a deep, 21-3 hole early. But there was really no excuse for the defense to play as poorly against South Carolina's running game as they did. Their streak of not allowing a 100 yard rusher may have technically stayed intact, but the fact of the matter is that the Gamecocks mostly did what they wanted to on the ground, and if Marcus Lattimore had been in the game a few more plays, he likely would have hit 100. Also, the defense seemed to have learned nothing from the Arkansas experience, and once again came out flat and got shellshocked in a wild road environment. This time around, they didn't get it together in the 2nd half.

2. The Defensive Backs must win one-on-one matchups with South Carolina's wide receivers: I knew this was going to be the toughest task for the Bama defense. In particular, Jeffery HAS to be in the conversation for Best WR in the SEC now. I was having nightmares about Jeffery vs. Demarcus Milliner in the redzone all week. And if I was having nightmares about it, I knew Steve Spurrier was having wet dreams about it. Sure enough, HBC dialed it up early in the 2nd quarter for the Gamecocks' 3rd touchdown of the day. And it looked easier than I had feared. That said, all things considered, the Bama DBs acquitted themselves better than the front 7. On several of Jeffery's big catches (such as his 1st touchdown and the circus catch against Dre Kirkpatrick late), he was NOT open, he just made great plays on the ball. The secondary even stepped up to create the lone turnover that gave Bama the opportunity to tie the game late. So it wasn't a total wash. These young guys just aren't quite good enough yet.

3. The Defense must not allow South Carolina to score TDs in the redzone. An abysmal failure. The Gamecocks scored 4 redzone TDs and made it look easy. The word was that SC spent a large portion of their extra prep time on redzone offense, and it showed. They were ultra efficient. This was almost a no contest.

4. The Defense must get off the field on 3rd down. Another big time fail. The defense just couldn't get South Carolina off the field, especially in crucial situations, allowing the Gamecocks to convert 5 of 8 in the second half. In particular, I flash back to when the game was still in the balance, 28-21 in the 4th quarter. South Carolina had the ball, and the D needed just one lousy stop. They had at least 3 third down opportunities on that drive that I recall off the top of my head, but failed each and every time, allowing SC to march down the field and put the game away with a short touchdown run. But it really was about more than 3rd down. These guys failed on every down. The D's inability to stop the run kep the Gamecocks in manageable yardage situations, which in turn allowed Stephen Garcia to stay in his comfort zone.

And as I warned against beforehand, this game was another terrible example of Bama's linemen and linebackers failing to finish tackles in the backfield, and Garcia made them pay. It wasn't a 3rd down, but here's a perfect example: It's 4th down. Garcia drops back to pass. Bama gets pressure, so he bails on the play. Numerous defenders have shots to get him in the backfield, namely Mark Barron. None of them do. Garcia scrambles for the 1st down. The very next play, he throws a TD to Jeffery. If these guys would get their heads on straight and focus on their fundamentals instead of just running around as fast as they can (and jumping off sides all the time), maybe they'd be a pretty good unit.

So that's really where we're at with the defense right now. They played with no fundamentals, no composure, and really don't seem to be "getting it" right now. Maybe the offense failing to bail them out again will be their wake up call. Maybe it's something about going on the road, where they've played their 3 worst games by far. At this point, we can only guess.

Speaking of the offense...I honestly don't have a lot negative to say here. I know a lot of people are calling for Jim McElwain's head for the offensive gameplan, but what these people don't get is that when you go down 21-3 early, the gameplan goes out the window. My only knocks against him in this game were that he didn't attack the deep middle of the field when the Gamecocks were selling out on the run early (when he did this later, it went for a TD) and that he couldn't get out of the "throw, throw, throw" mindset when the lead had been cut to 28-21 and Bama was driving. The already-infamous calling of 2 throws from 2-and-4 really was as bad as advertised. But as far as the former goes, I can't say for certain that he didn't call throws over the deep middle and McElroy just decided to hold onto the ball for 10 minutes.

Aside from getting in a hole early, that was what sunk the Bama offense. A lot has been, and will continue to be, said about the Gamecocks shutting down Ingram and Richardson, but the truth is that Bama took them out of the game. (They only got 17 carries between the two of them.) And like I said, part of that was understandable and some of it wasn't. But, man, GMac routinely killed drives by eating sacks. He only took 7 but if felt like a dozen. And at least half of those were plays where he held onto the ball too long and had ample opportunity to just throw it away and save the lost yardage. I don't know if he was mentally slow or suffering tunnel vision from that sorta-concussion he got last week, but he was awful in clutch situations.

Really, this was like the anti-McElroy. He put up a fantastic stat line (27-34 for 315 and 2 TDs) but totally choked when it came to winning time.

Lost in the agony of defeat was Julio Jones stepping up on his bruised knee in place of Ingram and Richardson with 8 catches for 118 yards and 1 TD and no egregious drops. Going forward, Bama needs to get those numbers in sync with Ingram and Richardson's good days. That would be tough to beat.

So what does all this mean going forward?

Not as much as you might think, really. This was an interdivisional SEC loss, meaning that Bama still controls it's down destiny in the West. If they win out, they're going to Atlanta (maybe for a rematch with South Carolina with the way Florida is looking these days). And let's not forget that 3 of the last 4 national champions were SEC teams with at least one loss. In 2006 and 2008, the Gators also lost early/mid-season interdivisional SEC games, only to win out and get in the BCS title game. The goal of a repeat national championship is definitely on the backburner for now, but it ain't completely off the table. No teary-eyed speeches necessary.

And let's keep the context of this game in mind. Bama played it's worst game of the year, and South Carolina played by far it's best game of the year. This was a young Tide team, coming off back-to-back tough wins over good teams, going on the road against a very talented, well-coached team coming off a bye week. That's a tough spot to be in, and one they won't be in again. The opponent bye weeks won't stop coming, but there isn't another 3 game stretch this tough the rest of the year. As long as the Tide doesn't completely fall apart mentally, they should be able to handle Ole Miss and Tennessee heading into their own bye week where they can regroup before a perilous-looking road trip to face a dangerously-lucky LSU team.

From that game onward, it all depends on the defense developing some consistency and leadership. The latter being what disappoints me the most. The consistency would come with leaders holding the young guys accountable. But nobody on this year's defense seems willing to step up and take on the Rolando McClain role of rattling everybody's cages when the going gets tough. WAY too much head-hanging from the likes of Mark Barron. I hate to keep linking back to stuff I wrote before the season started, but this is what I was talking about way back then. The offense will sort itself out, but some of those 08ers on defense have to step up and be LEADERS instead of just really talented football players. If that happens, Bama will be alright. If not, they'll lose to LSU and Auburn. End of story, see you in the Outback Bowl. I'm not calling for that. I'm just saying it's a possibility.

In closing, I'll say this. Prior to the season, I projected Alabama's record through 6 games to be 5-1. Through 6 games...They're 5-1, the loss is just different. They're still on track for the 11-1 I called for. If you're a Bama fan, chill out on the doom and gloom. If you're anyone else, don't think you can write Bama out of the title picture just yet. The Tide has issues but it's nothing they can't work out, if they want it.


Kevin said...

I think the key thing is that, like you said, Alabama controls it's own destiny. Win out and they are right back in the SEC Championship game and seeking revenge on South Carolina (or possibly Florida).

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