September 1, 2007

Business-like blowout

Of course, the cautionary qualifiers all apply for Alabama's 52-6 win over Western Carolina Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

It was just a I-AA opponent. And a bad one at that.

It was a complete mismatch, and not much of an indicator for how the Crimson Tide football team will perform in Southeastern Conference play. The outcome was in doubt no longer than it took Javier Arenas and Terry Grant to cover 77 yards combined on the opening kickoff return and the first play from scrimmage.

But forgive Alabama fans if they revel just a bit, anyway.

After all, those same fans watched the Crimson Tide grapple with lowly Duke for four quarters last season in a game that should have been a rout as well. They watched a Florida International team wrought with suspensions hang around for more than a half, and a three-win Ole Miss team take Alabama into overtime.

With a 2006 backdrop like that, Saturday night's clean and handy dispatch of a lesser opponent was a welcome sight. The Crimson Tide did what it was supposed to do: dominate. And for a young team coming off a 6-7 season, just taking care of the easiest of business is a forward step.

"Identity was a focal point," said coach Nick Saban. "Being physical, aggressive, relentless, kind of competitive style. For the most part, our players tried to respond to that."

Pretty much every piston in Alabama's engine fired against the Catamounts. The running game? Freshman Terry Grant had over 100 yards before the sun went down. The passing game? John Parker Wilson was the picture of efficiency with 17-of-25 passing with no turnovers.

"I protected the ball," said Wilson. "We moved the ball, we scored points."

Defensively, UA's nickel package was on display for most of the night, and fared more than adequately against a no-huddle, spread offense. Lorenzo Washington made his first career tackle for a quarterback sack, Darren Mustin delivered the head snapper of the night, and yardage for the Catamounts was generally hard to come by.

"They're a great team," said WCU quarterback Todd Spitzer. "They're fast and they get to the ball quick."

Still, Saban was as quick to note areas for improvement as he was to note areas of dominance.

"I don't think we were physical enough up front [on defense]," Saban said. "I think we're soft at the point sometimes. ... I saw some guys compete pretty well out there. I saw a few guys that didn't, and they got confronted."

With the blowout came a benefit Alabama has rarely been able to take advantage of over the years: experience for reserves. Playing lesser opponents to tight scores not only has been known to leave chewed fingernails in the Bryant-Denny stands, it also forces starters to play four quarters. And that has stunted the development of Alabama's younger players, in the past, on a regular basis.

No more.

Saturday night, fans were treated to career previews of quarterback Greg McElroy, offensive lineman David Ross, tight end Preston Dial and noseguard Alfred McCullough. Players like Cory Reamer, Milton Talbert and Ali Sharrief got their taste.

A year ago, those are just the kind of players that would have been relegated to cheerleaders as Alabama carried another cupcake for 12 rounds. Instead, they were made better players, even for only the quarter of mop-up duty most of them contributed.

For once, the Crimson Tide made sure a mismatch went according to script. And that's exactly what needs to happen before next week's trip to Nashville, where there will be no script.

"I think we showed how powerful we can be," said receiver DJ Hall. "But Vanderbilt will be a tougher team next week."

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