September 10, 2006

Grading the Tide: Alabama 13, Vandy 10

BOL provides a weekly report card for the Alabama football team during the 2006 season. Here's a look at how we graded the Crimson Tide in it's 13-10 win over Vanderbilt at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Quarterback

Until opposing defenses begin to respect the passing game, John Parker Wilson will be counted on to make them pay. Wilson made three questionable decisions in the first half against Vanderbilt. Instead of throwing the ball away on an ill-fated screen pass in the first quarter, he ran Kenneth Darby into an eight-yard loss. Later in the drive, he tried to fit a post pass into Keith Brown, who was working against double coverage on the play. One play after Simeon Castille's second-quarter interception, Wilson threw late to DJ Hall, which resulted in Wilson's first career interception. Still, Wilson was at his best when his team needed him the most. His 5-for-5 passing stretch on Alabama's opening drive of the second half was as impressive as anything we saw from his predecessor. Faced with a third-and-17 on the Tide's game-winning field goal drive, Wilson displayed both poise and zip in hitting Nikita Stover for 36 yards. Heading into the season I felt that Alabama would convert more third downs with Wilson at the controls, and he was largely responsible for UA cashing in on 8-of-15 opportunities against the Commodores. He possesses a combination of field awareness and mobility that will help the Tide move the chains. Having the courage to stand in and deliver in the face of the blitz doesn't hurt, either. As much as Mike Shula would like to get Darby and the running game going, this is Wilson's offense.

Position Grade: B+

Running backs

So which is more responsible for UA's sluggish ground game: Darby's health or the offensive line? I'm thinking it's a little bit of both. Simple math tells us that running against eight-man boxes is hard to do. Still, it's not like Darby is getting drilled in the backfield on every carry. Even when running lanes have presented themselves, he has often stumbled or failed to accelerate through the hole. Jimmy Johns and Tim Castille are making people miss, but Darby is going down on first (and sometimes no) contact. That should tell you all you need to know about a guy who has eluded more potential tacklers than any other Tide back in recent memory. The good news is that we began to see glimpses of the Darby of old in the second half. The 43 yards he rushed for after intermission didn't necessarily signal a breakout, but in ripping off fourth-quarter runs of 17 and 13 yards Darby flashed the determined style that has long been his trademark. He also picked up a blitzer on Wilson's 31-yard touchdown pass to Hall in the third quarter. Just when it looked like Johns was ready to take on more carries, the sophomore puts the ball on the ground at the Vanderbilt 1. His third-quarter mistake came on the heels of a Castille fumble that Vanderbilt recovered at its own 13 late in the first half. Castille did convert three third downs in the game -- two on runs and another on a reception. For the second week in a row, Johns wasted no time in making his presence felt. The sophomore's first three carries netted 27 yards.

Position Grade: C

Offensive line

Pass protection was the highlight for the front five Saturday -- and it should have been. Vanderbilt's front four is one of the SEC's least productive units from a pass rushing standpoint. The concern continues to be with this group's ability to run block effectively. Being outnumbered is one thing, giving up backside penetration in one-on-one situations is another. This wasn't Chris Capps' finest outing. The Tide's starting right tackle was flagged twice for holding and was beaten more than once on running plays that went away from him. VU cornerback Joel Caldwell found out what its like to take on a 340-pound man who runs like a linebacker. Caldwell was properly introduced to Andre Smith[db] on a third-quarter slip screen to [db]Keith Brown[db].

Position Grade: C+

Receivers

The return of Hall combined with the arrival of Stover will make the Tide's three and four wide receiver sets much more difficult to defend. Double Brown and Hall will have man coverage on the other side. Stover came up big in the clutch. Wilson's throw was on the money, but for a guy who had spent three quarters on the sidelines, Stover made the play look easier than it actually was. Hall, Brown and Stover had a hand in three plays that covered 29 yards or longer. Outside of Brown's drop of a perfectly thrown out cut in the first quarter, Tide receivers caught everything they got their hands on.

Position Grade: B+

Defensive line

It didn't matter if it was in its three or four man fronts, Alabama's defensive line wasn't able to get heat on Vanderbilt quarterback [db]Chris Nickson in the first half. On a day when we didn't hear much from this group, end [db]Wallace Gilberry and tackle [db]Dominic Lee were the standouts. Gilberry finished with five tackles -- including two for loss. For the second time in as many games, Gilberry pressured the quarterback on the game's final play. One of Lee's three stops came behind the line.

Position Grade: C+

Linebackers

As good as DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach were against the run, it's in coverage where the Tide misses them the most. [db]Juwan Simpson continues to lead the way here, but the reaction time of others to bootlegs and coverage responsibilities in the Vanderbilt game was somewhat slow. Compared to a year ago, there's been much more open space for opposing backs and receivers to work with after the catch. And that's more of a compliment to Ryans and Roach than a knock on the guys who have been assigned the unenviable task of filling their shoes. As evidenced by his early appearance at weakside linebacker in Saturday's game, Marcel Stamps continues to earn the trust of Joe Kines. Middle linebacker Prince Hall recorded three tackles in making the first start of his UA career.

Position Grade: C+

Secondary

With Simeon Castille sliding inside to the nickel spot, Lionel Mitchell made his first start at right cornerback. Mitchell recorded three tackles, including two solid stops in the open field. Castille continues to excel at the nickel, adding two more interceptions to his career total on Saturday. He was the beneficiary of a poorly thrown pass by Nickson on his first pick, but he did an excellent job of reading Nickson's eyes while in zone coverage on his second theft. After giving up 113 passing yards in the first half, the Tide limited Nickson to 42 yards (while picking him off twice) over the final two quarters. Through two games, Alabama's defensive backs have forced five turnovers.

Position Grade: B+

Special Teams

Seeing as how he provided the winning margin, it would be hard to go against Leigh Tiffin as the Tide's most valuable special teams performer. That said, I'll take Rashad Johnson as the co-MVP. Johnson roared down field on the opening kickoff (which Andrew Friedman sent three yards deep into the end zone) and drilled VU's Josh Allen at the Commodore 10. The sophomore forced a fumble on a third quarter kickoff return that Cory Reamer recovered. Two of P.J. Fitzgerald's three punts pinned VU inside its own 20. In producing one good coverage kick after another, Vanderbilt punter Brett Upson single handedly took away the Tide's punt return game. Javier Arenas failed to reach the 20-yard line on UA's only legitimate kickoff return opportunity.

Position Grade: B

The Plan

The Tide's lacking point production can be attributed to the two red zone gifts the offense provided the Commodores with on Saturday. And that's doesn't include the fake field goal attempt that came up well short. My only issue with the fake was that it asked the punter (and, yes, I know he's a good athlete) to pick up nine yards while running off tackle. With Vandy's outstanding middle linebacker, Jonathan Goff, paying full attention, that just wasn't going to happen. It isn't time to totally scrap the two-back, one tight end formation, but this offense is better off in three and four wides for the time being. Apparently, it's going to take spreading the field and a 300-yard, four-touchdown-pass kind of performance from Wilson to get the extra defender out of the box. And even doing that against Louisiana-Monroe won't discourage Arkansas and Florida from loading up against the run.

Defensive coordinator Joe Kines shouldered the blame for Vanderbilt's 87-yard touchdown drive late in the first half, saying that he was "too impatient." He was likely referring to the blitz he dialed up on a third-and-4 play that the Commodores beat when Nickson hit fullback Steven Bright in the right flat for 13 yards. If Kines is going to take responsibility for the Commodores' lone touchdown then we should credit him for the play of his defense in the second half. The Tide limited Vanderbilt to 81 yards and three first downs in the final two quarters. With variations of the spread offense dominating the college football landscape, teams are playing more nickel than ever. As Kines put it so succinctly in Saturday's postgame, "The days of lining up and stopping the power off tackle have gone the way of the white water buffalo." And with them have gone the Tide's base 4-3 alignment. Even with the three turnovers committed by the offense, the Tide currently sits at +4 in turnover margin.

Plan grade: B

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