September 2, 2006

Unfinished drives lead to exciting finish

In the days leading up to Alabama's season opener against Hawai'i, one almost got the feeling that the Crimson Tide coaching staff was preaching a tactic more appropriate for March than September.

Survive and advance.

With a new starting quarterback and a stable of talented running backs, the formula for doing just that seemed simple enough: Go two tights, hand the ball to Kenneth Darby 30 times and move on to Vanderbilt.

While that wasn't the route Shula opted for in the Tide's 25-17 win over the Warriors, the desired result was achieved all the same.

But what did we really learn about this team on opening night?

For starters, we learned yet again that when it comes to doling out discipline Shula isn't overly concerned about public perception. And he shouldn't be. Actually, in allowing Juwan Simpson to play, Shula sided with the more difficult of two choices. Suspending Simpson, who finished the game as the Tide's leading tackler, would have silenced Shula's critics. Instead, Internet posters and talk radio hosts will roast him in the coming days for siding with his player over political correctness.

In his postgame remarks, Shula said Simpson "had proven himself to his coaches and teammates." Frankly, I don't think that is the question here. What I'm wondering is whether or not Shula proved himself to all of his players in dealing with Simpson.

Offensively, it appears as if at least one unwanted remnant from the 2005 season was granted an additional year of eligibility at UA (kind of like Hawai'i's entire roster). Despite having several opportunities to do so, the offense could not apply a knockout punch to a Hawai'i defense that dropped its hands more than once in the second half.

As Hawai'i quarterback Colt Brennan was tossing the game's final two passes toward the south end zone (I always have a Sean Cangelosi flashback when this happens), we were reminded once again that teams that don't finish drives with touchdowns leave themselves open to exciting finishes.

And that's precisely where the Tide's defense found itself in the final seconds of an eight-point game. And given all the opportunities Alabama's offense had to put the Warriors away, it never should have come down to Lionel Mitchell's interception at the horn.

Don't get me wrong, in watching Leigh Tiffin bang home three field goals in the same venue that hosted his father some 20 years ago, I enjoyed the trip down memory lane as much as anyone. It's just that I'm a bigger fan of extra points than field goals -- especially when red zone opportunities are involved.

When quarterbacks have wide receivers running free for scores, as John Parker Wilson had Keith Brown twice in the second half, they have to convert.

The good news is that Wilson, in the first start of his career, didn't miss Brown by much. Six inches here or two feet there and Marc Guillon is taking snaps in the fourth quarter. Problem is, what people have been saying about this offense for a few years now.

Defensively, losing seven starters didn't lead to Joe Kines giving up his "play them all" approach. Over the course of Hawai'i first 11 offensive plays, Kines employed a total of 19 defenders. During that stretch, five players -- Rashad Johnson, Zach Schreiber, Marquis Johnson, Prince Hall and Ezekial Knight -- made their defensive debuts.

After watching the Warriors use it effectively time and time again, I think its safe to say that Vanderbilt will have the shovel pass in its game plan for next Saturday.

Most importantly, though, in producing a critical third-quarter turnover just shy of its own goal line, the defense was better than their offensive counterparts inside the red zone.

And when called upon to finish the job for the Tide, they did it once again.

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