Sunday, September 25, 2011

week 4 thoughts: who we thought we were

On Wednesday of this week, a co-worker of mine — a world-class reporter who sometimes doesn't notice the world around him — noted that Alabama was ranked in the top-5 in the nation.
"Alabama ranked No. 2?" he said.
I kind of sighed.
"Are we — I mean ... Are we that good?"
I confessed I didn't know. True, we'd gone on the road at that point and beat a (average at best) Penn State team, and we certainly have potential, but ... are we that good? I'm not sure.
"I don't know if we're that good," he concluded. "I think this weekend's gonna be tough."
We just might have an answer now.
It was two years ago at this time that Alabama thumped a dangerous Arkansas team at home; at the time, the Hawgs had just rolled up about a billion yards vs. Georgia and looked like the most dangerous offense in the conference. Alabama pretty much brushed them off in one afternoon.
This Arkansas team, to me, looked like every bit the team it was last year — you know, the one that led the defending national champs 20-7 late in the third quarter before folding up. And Alabama had shown enough vulnerability — unable to control the line of scrimmage all the time, erratic quarterback play, average pass rush — that it seemed like one of those "shock-the-world" upsets was afoot.
I was wrong again.

Know what was striking about this game? Watching the tape, Alabama outhit Arkansas on Saturday — on offense, defense and special teams. It was impossible to count the number of times a white jersey hit the turf, and a red jersey reached down to help him up. Alabama wasn't just the better team — it was the more physical team. Alabama bullied Arkansas on Saturday, like I used to do when I played my little brother on Bill Walsh's College Football on Sega Genesis (I just felt like bringing this up). In the fourth quarter, tired of watching his quarterback take shots — most of them were even legal — Bobby Petrino yanked him, effectively tapping out in the center of the ring.
Of course, we are required by law to utter the pessimist/realist line of "Don't get carried away" at this point. For one thing, this week's trip to Florida is a road game vs. an undefeated team that was in the SEC Championship Game two years ago (a lot of those athletes are still there). For another, Saturday night's matinee of LSU-West Virginia was a reminder of the epic war that's coming to town in November. It's a long way from here to anything special.
But at least we know we can be that good. It's a pretty exciting proposition, even for somebody like me.

A few other notes ...
— This will sound weird, but the key to Alabama's first touchdown was actually the kicker, Cade Foster. Just bear with me: When Bama shifted out of the field goal set, Foster went from his regular kicker's spot to a tight slot on the left side of the formation, an eligible receiver spot. At the snap, Foster took off like a little kid being chased by his neighbor's pet Rottweiler, occupying the defensive back on that side and opening up a spot for Michael Williams to slip into. These are little things a championship football team does.
(Note: My cousin Jamie wondered why Bobby Petrino didn't spend a timeout when Bama shifted. But Petrino had his regular defense on the field playing safe; he was very aware Alabama might not attempt an absurd 54-yard field goal that early in the game. Alabama just called a better play, plain and simple.)
— For all my whining about the offensive line the first three weeks, our guys played up to their preseason potential Saturday. Finally, Alabama showed the dominant run game it was purported to have. I particularly enjoyed the last touchdown, when Eddie Lacy was four yards downfield before anyone even appeared on the screen. They played so well, I almost got over the fact that we couldn't score in three chances from the 1-yard line.
(Note: To be fair, it certainly looked like A.J. McCarron scored on the first-down quarterback sneak.)
— DeQuan Menzie's pick-6 was one of the weirdest interceptions you'll ever see. Menzie didn't so much "tip it to himself" as Tyler Wilson "threw the ball at his right hand." Kudos to him for gathering himself, but the play itself seemed like random chance.
(Note: Prior to the play, Wilson and Courtney Upshaw were jawing in the backfield; when Menzie took off toward the end zone, Upshaw turned and, for no real reason, crushed Wilson with a "block." You know, just cause.)
— Really, that's just life on the margins in the SEC. Twice Alabama called halfback screen passes that were nearly intercepted. You may recall that one of those turned into a touchdown.
— This isn't so much a criticism as it is an observation: At the end of the third quarter, Bobby Petrino appeared to call Tyler Wilson "a f*cking coward" into his headset (my dad alerted me to this, so all credit goes to him). I'm not here to judge anyone's language — seriously, I'm the same guy who roots for a team coached by Nick Saban — but who talks that way about his own players?
It's not as though Wilson showed zero toughness in the game — Alabama pummeled the poor kid all day (in Gary Danielson's words, "He took it in the chin from 6 different guys."). Petrino's obviously frustrated, but that's more than a little embarrassing.
— That reminds me: The effective end of the game came on a fourth-and-1 near midfield, when Petrino — an alleged offensive "genius" (and CBS played up the "genius" battle between Saban and Petrino the entire first half — called a pedestrian lead dive, that lost a yard. Genius, indeed.

— Also ... this happened.
I've watched that play about 50 times since yesterday. And I think I'm going back for 51 in a minute.
Roll Tide.

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