VT wrapup: Alabama’s opener surprisingly good
By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 6, 2009
That Alabama beat Virginia Tech in its opening game wasn’t a surprise –- at worst, Alabama was expected to match up equally with the Hokies. But the way in which Alabama beat Virginia Tech?
Let’s just say if Alabama coaches wanted to temper fan enthusiasm, this wasn’t the way to do it.
The scoreboard was the only place Alabama didn’t completely dominate Virginia Tech. Even there, Alabama amassed what could be described as a comfortable cushion. The stat page, by comparison, looked like the Hessian Army tried to tangle with the 101st Airborne.
Alabama’s defense was very good in 2008, great by many measures. In the 2009 opener, the defense was great and also great big. Alabama has more defensive linemen than it can even rotate through in a single game. Instead of a depth chart, Alabama has a “Now Serving” box installed on the sideline where random players can draw lots to exchange for snaps.
There’s not much of a point in breaking down this game, because if Alabama’s special teams coverage units –- which have struggled ever since Ron Middleton left the staff after 2007 –- do their jobs, Alabama might have beaten Virginia Tech by the score of a whole lot to not very much. Part of it is Virginia Tech’s fault -– if ever a team needed to run the spread-option with the offensive talent it has, Tech is it -– but mostly it was the fault of Virginia Tech’s linemen not being able to handle a bunch of guys a lot bigger and more talented. And in football, that tends to translate into losses more often than not.
Greg McElroy had about as good a debut under center as possible. He never looked overwhelmed, he checked down to secondary receivers more times in one game than John Parker Wilson used to do in a month, and he provided evidence that perhaps Alabama’s deep-ball game won’t be marked by consistent overthrows. The offensive line held its own against, at worst, the second-best defensive line it will see all year long (only Florida in the SEC Championship Game and maybe South Carolina are in Virginia Tech’s league), the running backs looked as if they’d been moved to the Super-Size menu and finally, receivers not named Julio Jones made plays.
But the real cause for celebration was to be had after the analysis of the defensive line and linebacker corps. Alabama has probably 20-25 guys in those seven positions alone that are interchangeable. Lorenzo Washington played a superb game at the tackle/end slot, and when he got tired, Alabama simply shipped in another 6’5”, 280-pounder (Marcell Dareus or Luther Davis, depending on the play) and caused more trouble. The list of teams in the country that can do this number fewer than 10.
All was not good. Safety Mark Barron was indirectly responsible for two touchdowns as a result of taking bad angles on a kickoff return and on a Virginia Tech run down the sideline. Barron is a big hitter, but he isn’t Rashad Johnson just yet and if Robby Green ends up playing more in the coming weeks, it will surprise no one.
Perhaps the most overlooked weakness, though, was in the blocking performance of the H-back position. Prior to the season, we identified three players Alabama would miss the most. Rashad Johnson was one, to no one’s surprise. Marlon Davis was the second; if not for Barrett Jones being moved to right guard late in camp and the light coming on, this might still be an issue, as Alabama had tried several players at the slot to no success.
The third key loss was Travis McCall. Neither Preston Dial nor Brad Smelley were anywhere close to McCall’s blocking prowess. Dial missed a couple of key blocks on short-yardage situations that directly cost Alabama first downs. Alabama might be forced back into the I-formation with Baron Huber, or perhaps audition Undra Billingsley at the position in the coming weeks if things don't improve. Time will tell.
Still, these are peanuts of complaints in a world full of coconuts. Alabama woke up at halftime and once that happened, Virginia Tech had no chance. And remember that Virginia Tech was the No. 7 team in the nation, not East West State.
All hail Chris Ault
On a somewhat personal note, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an offensive wrinkle from the game Saturday and couple it with a standing ovation for Nick Saban and Jim McElwain.
Regular readers of this column will remember my long-held fondness for Nevada head coach Chris Ault. Over a multi-decade career in almost complete obscurity, Ault has won 198 career games, beaten a lot of teams he shouldn’t have and has probably eschewed chances to move up in the coaching world in favor of staying at a school in an area of the country he loves. Good for him.
He also is considered the father of the “Pistol” offense, a hybrid of the shotgun, spread-option and standard play-action offense. By placing the quarterback halfway between the center and the traditional shotgun depth, defenses are forced to respect the play-action while the quarterback basically gets a free look at the defense from a standing position, while at the same time having an option play at his ready disposal.
Much has been made of Alabama’s Wildcat (or “Wild Elephant”) formation that debuted against Virginia Tech, but the Pistol plays – particularly those in the second half – were the ones that went almost undefended.
I gave up hope that Chris Ault would move to a higher-profile school in recent years and was saddened that his innovative Pistol might die a death of obscurity. But like any good idea in football, the copycats have come running, and apparently Saban and McElwain are at the head of the pack. Watching Alabama execute the Pistol to near-perfection against Virginia Tech was a beautiful thing to see. Chris Ault, the Bama Nation owes you a drink.