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September 6, 2009

Upon Further Review: Alabama vs. Virginia Tech

Miscues threatened to derail the University of Alabama's season opener against Virginia Tech on Saturday night, but there were a lot of other words that describe the Crimson Tide following the 34-24 victory at the Georgia Dome.

Like "tough," "chutzpah," and "guts."

The Tide started to wear the Hokies down in the second quarter, and kept going in the second half. Alabama outgained Virginia Tech 498 to 155 in total yards and ran 28 more offensive plays (79 to 51). The bigger, stronger team had a time of possession advantage of 37 minutes 2 seconds, to 22:58.

But what was really impressive, and what the coaching staff should be thrilled with was this: Three of the four times Tech scored points, Alabama immediately countered and other time was a missed field goal.

Here are this week's game honors followed by 10 things you may, or may not, have noticed about the game:

Player of the game: Sophomore running back Mark Ingram showed he's ready to carry the Crimson Tide and finished with a career-high 150 rushing yards on 26 carries, three catches for 35 yards, and scored two touchdowns.

Play of the game: The 48-yard catch by sophomore wide receiver Marquis Maze early in the fourth quarter set up Ingram's 6-yard touchdown run and marked the beginning of the end for the Hokies.

Hit of the game: It's not often this goes to an offensive player, but instead of trying to dive into the end zone to finish off a 19-yard touchdown run, senior running back Roy Upchurch lowered his shoulder and ran over rover Dorian Porch.

Statistic of the game: While Alabama outgained Virginia Tech in total yards 498 to 155, the Hokies gained their most yards in the fourth quarter, 50, when the Tide tallied 180. Of those, 123 were rushing yards.

Did you notice? Junior quarterback Greg McElroy was in obvious discomfort after the play Tech was called for pass interference in the third quarter, due to taking a hard hit and possibly a helmet to the ribs from linebacker Cody Grimm. By our count, McElory took more than a dozen hard hits in the game.

1. McElroy's day: McElroy's confidence grew as the game progressed and he stopping focusing so much on trying to get the ball to Julio Jones. The sophomore made four catches for 46 yards, but McElroy threw his direction six other times and at least twice took off running when the play wasn't there (including an early screen that turned into a 9-yard run). At one point, McElroy didn't have a completion in nine straight attempts, but then started to get into a groove. In the second half, McElroy only missed on three passes, a deflection, a drop and a high throw to senior tight end Colin Peek in the end zone. He was 5-for-11 on third downs and he missed his first six passes in the red zone (inside the 20), before connecting with sophomore running back Mark Ingram for the final touchdown.

2. Where the Tide ran: Football teams try and play to their strengths and last year that meant running behind the left side of the line (until near the end of the season). Saturday, the Tide had its greatest success running outside of the tackles, breaking runs of 39, 33, 19, 18, 16 and 14 yards. Granted, one of those carries resulted in a fumble, but the change in philosophy was noteworthy.

3. The pass rush: Alabama was able to attack from just about anywhere and frequently had both the Tech quarterback, Tyrod Talor, and his linemen, confused, evidenced by the way the Hokies burned their time outs and converted 2 of 12 third-down opportunities (0-for-5 in the second half). Virginia Tech averaged just 3.0 yards per play, and if you subtract the 43-yard completion on botched coverage, and Ryan Williams' 32- yard carry, and it was a 1.6 average. The five sacks were more than Alabama recorded in any game last season (Arkansas State, four), and the most since Middle Tennessee State in 2005. The Tide had 26 sacks in 14 games in 2008, an average of 1.9 sacks per game. Junior Rolando McClain already needs just one more to match last year's three. Senior end Lorenzo Washington should have been credited with a hurry early on and later instigated the pitch to basically no one.

4. Big plays: McElroy was comfortable going downfield, which is something the Tide didn't do much last year, but the Hokies were determined not to let Jones beat them and frequently bracketed him with more than one person in coverage. Consequently, the two biggest completions took advantage of senior safety Kam Chancellor being along in single coverage, junior Darius Hanks' terrific 35-yard reception (FYI, Ingram made a great blitz pickup on the play), and the 48-yard catch by Maze. Alabama appears to be more explosive, but a surprising statistic was that the Tide only had 57 yards after the catch.

5. The newcomers: Alabama played only two true freshmen, Rod Woodson, who made the tackle on the opening kickoff, and Trent Richardson. That's a far cry from a year ago when nine true freshmen played against Clemson, with Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower starting. Richardson was on kickoff coverage in the second half and had three carries of 10 yards when the Tide was killing the clock. Alabama had nine new starters, six on offense and three on defense. Senior Eryk Anders, at Jack linebacker, led the team with eight tackles, two for a loss, and was also credited for a forced fumble. Sophomore end Marcell Dareus impressed with 1 sacks (and probably should have drawn a couple of holding calls) while starting for senior Brandon Deaderick. Although there were some rough spots, like some low snaps from sophomore center William Vlachos and two holding penalties on junior left tackle James Carpenter, the three new players on the line played pretty well. A good example was Ingram's 39-yard run around the left end, with Carpenter providing the lead block.

6. Who got thrown at? On the blown coverage that led to Tech's second touchdown, sophomore Mark Barron appeared to have the initial coverage and released, with senior Marquis Johnson not picking him up. After the play, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart grabbed Johnson, while Coach Nick Saban talked to Barron. However, it also came the snap after Johnson was called for pass interference. Tech completed just nine passes, none with junior Kareem Jackson in coverage and just an underneath route against Javier Arenas.

7. The Wild Tide: As we noted late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, the "Wildcat" formation Alabama used wasn't very successful, except that every opponent now has to prepare for it and wonder of Star Jackson might soon get a shot running it. The Tide ran it nine times for a total of 9 yards. The rest of the game the offense averaged 6.99 yards per play, and when not in the formation Ingram averaged 7.0 yards per carry (19 for 133).

8. The penalties: The 10 penalties for 83 yards have to be a little disconcerting to the coaching staff, especially since many of them fell into the "dumb" category. Topping that list were McClain's personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after Tech guard Sergio Render gave him a high shot when they were nowhere near the play. Also, Johnson's pass-interference call came on third-and-10 and the receiver was well short of the first down.

9. Special teams I: First the good, senior punter P.J. Fitzgerald had a terrific game by averaging 44.8 yards with three inside the 20 and impressive hang time. Senior Chris Rogers ripped out a fumble, which he recovered, and senior long-snapper Brian Selman also had a fumble recovery. Now the bad, Tech averaged 30.4 yards per kick return. On the 98-yard touchdown, when Rogers cut inside, Dyrell Roberts hit the hole between Upchurch and Barron.

10. Special teams II:
Kickoff coverage: Leigh Tiffin, Robby Green, Rogers, Courtney Upshaw, Barron, Upchurch (later replaced by Richardson), Chris Jordan, Tyrone King, Ali Sharrief, Marquis Johnson, Woodson.
Kick returns: Javier Arenas and Terry Grant were deep, in front of Peek, Baron Huber and Damion Square. Up front were Woodson, Sharrief, Jordan, Cory Reamer, Rogers and King.
Punts: The gunners were Green and Marquis Johnson, along with Sharrief, Upshaw, McClain, Hightower, Selman, Upchurch, Anders, Reamer and Fitzgerald.
Punt returns: Areans, Kareem Jackson, Marquis Johnson, Upchurch, Reamer, Brad Smelley, Demetrius Goode, Rogers, Jordan, Sharrief and King (who made three tackles but was also flagged for a horsecollar tackle).


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