September 10, 2007

Grading the Tide: Alabama 24, Vanderbilt 10

John Parker Wilson posted one of his least effective performances for the Crimson Tide, something he clearly acknowledged following the game. He finished 14 of 28 for 150 yards, and did not record a touchdown pass for the fifth time in 15 career starts. But as coach Nick Saban noted, protection breakdowns and wide receiver play contributed to the misfiring air attack. While several incompletions may have been catchable, they were also thrown to the wrong spot. Wilson's interception on a first-half screen pass was too long of a throw to be floated the way it was, but it wasn't his worst throw of the day. A couple of throws into coverage fell incomplete but could easily have been intercepted.

Running backs
Had Glen Coffee been ineffective while Terry Grant was watching how the zone running plays should be handled, the total grade for the backs would have had to suffer. But with Coffee keeping the chains moving with his North-South running style, and Grant finishing strongly with 173 yards on 24 carries, this is an easy 'A'. Grant broke off a failed run right in the first quarter for a long improvised run left, showing why he is the team's best back. For the second week in a row, the backs did not put a ball on the ground and did a nice job receiving the ball as well.

Offensive line

This group was clearly more effective run blocking than pass blocking in its first SEC test. UA dominated the Vanderbilt front on running plays for most of the game, and paved the way for more big numbers for Grant. As a team, the Crimson Tide rushed for 221 yards on a 4.6 average - top-notch in any SEC road game. The brief experiment while Mike Johnson was out of the game - Andre Caldwell at right tackle and Evan Cardwell at center - went nowhere. While the game was certainly not a sack-fest for Vanderbilt (Marcus Buggs recorded VU's only sack), Wilson was still harassed too much for fans to take much comfort. Vanderbilt was credited with seven quarterback hurries, which would translate to a few sacks against the SEC's toughest teams.

DJ Hall and Mike McCoy were the only wide receivers to catch passes Saturday, combining for just five grabs and less than 100 yards. There were several drops, and not much separation from the Commodores secondary. For the second week in a row, UA's receivers were aggressive in blocking for the running game. As for the tight ends, they were less of a focus than they were in week one, but Nick Walker's two-point score in the second half was the toughest catch made by either team. Walker not only had to soar high for the catch, he also had to fight off a decent break-up attempt by Reshard Langford.

Defensive line
While pressure on Vandy QB Chris Nickson certainly didn't look like a jailbreak, UA's line did record nine pressures - four from Wallace Gilberry - and picked a key time for it's only sack by Bobby Greenwood (the other sack came from the LB corps). What carries a strong grade here, however, was UA's performance against the run. Vandy picked up just 57 net rushing yards, and the Commodores' reliance on the option attack, once they fell behind, became sporadic. Both starting ends played solidly, and Lorenzo Washington held his own well enough to free linebackers.

It's always a good sign for a defense when a linebacker leads the team in tackles, and Saturday Alabama's top two stoppers came from this group (Darren Mustin and Rolando McClain had six each). Like the defensive line, the linebacking corps had much to do with Vanderbilt's inability to sustain the option, and McClain picked up a late sack. Ezekial Knight contributed five tackles from the strong side. Despite being in a playmaking position at the "Jack" spot, Keith Saunders hasn't made much noise through two games. Substitutions were limited, with Prince Hall being the only non-starter to see first-half action.

Defensive backs
Locking up Earl Bennett for what will probably he his least productive game of the season merits a strong 'A' here. Rashad Johnson got his first career interception to stifle one early drive, and Simeon Castille had a nice first-half break-up as well. The secondary got lucky on a couple of overthrown deep balls early in the game - including a potential touchdown to Sean Walker - but played very well overall. Kareem Jackson looks like anything but a freshman and chipped in five stops. Marcus Carter was beaten for a late touchdown and missed a chance at a fumble recovery.

Special Teams
It's not easy to get an 'A' with two missed field goals, but another dynamic effort from the return game and P.J. Fitzgerald's big day combined to make it happen. Javier Arenas' tone-setting punt return established UA's advantage immediately, the sophomore from Tampa is one big return against Arkansas away from being feared league-wide. Leigh Tiffin made three field goals to improve on his season-opening effort. Alabama's kickoff coverage was solid for the second week in a row.

The Plan
Saban obviously had the right bag of tricks to contain Bennett, and on a day when the offense had trouble finishing drives, defending Bennett could not have been more important. Offensively, the Tide staff stuck to the ground game in the second half when it became obvious that the backs would have to carry the day, and the result was an 86-yard drive that put the game out of reach. Twin punt returners to offset Vanderbilt's rugby punting was a checkmate move that kept Alabama's offense in strong field position all day.

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