Sports

College Football Keys to Victory: Alabama vs. Penn State

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For those who have followed the blog since last season, you'll recognize this as my preview for Alabama's game against Penn State this weekend. For newcomers, it's set up as less of a preview and more of my own personal advice for the Crimson Tide on what they need to do (and not do) to win this game. Advice that nobody asked for, of course.

Me being the "Alabama guy" here and all, obviously the insight here will skew more towards the Crimson Tide's end of things, but I think you'll generally find enough info on the Tide's opponent to be of interest to non-Bama fans. That said, this edition will be more Bama-centric than usual since much of my advice will focus on larger issues that figure to face the Tide beyond this one game. But, really, until someone steps up and proves otherwise, the road to the SEC championship and beyond goes through Tuscaloosa in 2011. Love 'em or hate 'em, you gotta keep an eye on these guys. So read it already. And no skipping to the pick at the end...

NOTE: For the sake of brevity, we will always assume that Alabama needs to run the ball, stop the run, and limit turnovers to win the game. These are the basic tenets of the faith when it comes to Alabama football, and time could be better spent elsewhere. Though I will make a season-opening exception for one of those today.

1. The Defense needs to finally grow up. For all the gnashing of teeth over the 2010 Bama defense, the fact is that by most of the standard metrics it was very, very good. On average, they allowed less than 2 TDs a game! At home, they were even better, allowing less than 10 points a game (and that's with the 28-point Iron Bowl meltdown skewing the numbers). It was a young, inexperienced unit, but by and large, those kids knew what they were doing. It wasn't a lack of knowledge that kept them from being a championship-caliber defense.

No, the problem manifested itself in Fayetteville, in Columbia, in Baton Rouge, and in the clutch against Auburn. As many young players do, they struggled with regulating their emotions in intense situations. Call it lack of composure or poise. Maybe even call it a lack of character. But when the big moments came, they choked. More specific to the challenge at hand this weekend, each and every time they went into a wild, hostile road environment, their quality of play dramatically declined. It was only Ryan Mallett being Ryan Mallett that saved them from going 0-3 on the road against teams with a pulse.

And that's where they'll be this Saturday afternoon: on the road, in front of the biggest crowd to ever watch an Alabama football game, against a team (and fanbase) that's super motivated to avenge last year's loss. If this Bama defense doesn't have it's mind right, the results could be shockingly similar to 2010.

2. The Offensive Line needs to get nasty again. A lot of excuses were made for Bama's offensive line last season, not the least of which being that injuries took a significant toll on them. And it's certainly true that 3 of 5 starters either missed games and/or were known to be playing through nagging injuries for most of the season. I think we'd all rather have had Barrett Jones lining up across from Nick Fairley than Anthony Steen in the Iron Bowl. But problems on the line were apparent long before Jones and DJ Fluker started dropping. Bottom line: They lost their edge.

The 2008 and 2009 offensive lines were just MEAN. They played more like a defensive line and took great pride in beating up a defense until they were ready to quit. One of the weakest excuses I routinely heard from Bama fans last year was that the Tide wasn't running the ball as well in 2010 because "everybody knows it's coming and game plans for it now." Did they not know it was coming in 2009? The 2010 offense was so multi-dimensional it made the 2008 offense look like they were running the Wishbone. And yet somehow I'm supposed to believe it was easier for teams to load up against the run last year? I don't think so. The problem was that the 08/09 lines were nasty and had the will to dominate their opponents, and the 2010 line was soft.

Unfortunately, the OL didn't show me much in the season opener to make me think the 2011 line will be any different. Excuses are plentiful, of course (OL rotation, ran just a couple of base run plays, etc), but we're talking about Kent State here. Alabama's 2nd-string line should be able to run a straight dive play over and over again on them, all day. Maybe this was a classic case of a power team not bringing their "A" game against an overmatched opponent in week 1. I hope so. Because I'll tell you what, based on what I've been hearing out of State College, all those defenders that got made to look silly by Trent Richardson last year are on a righteous mission. Penn State is going to load the box and make shutting him down their top priority. The 08 and 09 lines would run on them anyway. I guess we'll find out about the 11 line soon enough.

3. Put the Quarterback rotation on hold this week. I completely understand what the Tide coaching staff is trying to do with this quarterback competition, but this rotation business stalled out the offense last week. The offense came out humming with AJ McCarron at the controls but clammed up when Phillip Sims came in cold off the bench. And by the time McCarron got back in the game, HE was cold and took a while to get going again. Bama can't afford to waste precious possessions on the road while they wait for QBs to come off the bench and get back in the flow of the game. Pick a starter and stick with him for this game. You can go right back to the competition next week vs. North Texas, but for now, let one of them be The Guy (unless he flames out, in which case do what you gotta do).

And for now, I think the guy is McCarron. I'm an avowed member of Team Sims, but he played like a guy playing in his first game last week. He clearly had some issues adjusting to the speed of the game, and both of his interceptions were a direct result of him playing slow. The Tide can't have that this week. I think Sims will be a great one for Alabama if he sticks around, maybe even at some point this season, but he's not going to be great on Saturday. Keep him on the bench.

4. Lock down Derek Moye.  It seems shameful not to single out Penn State's terrific young running back, Silas Redd, but he falls into the category of "stop the run," so I've decided to focus on another one of the Nittany Lions' under-the-radar offensive weapons.  In my opinion, Moye is one of the more underrated guys in the B1G, maybe even all of college football.  At 6'5" 202lbs, the long, lanky senior receiver is a matchup nightmare for most defensive backs.  Last year, he hauled in 53 catches for 885 yards and 8 TDs, despite some incredibly sketchy quarterback play.  Against Alabama, he hauled in 3 passes for a whopping 69 yards at the expense of the Tide's young secondary.  He's so big and such a cagey veteran, he can make even the sorriest quarterbacks (whose ranks surely include Robert Bolden and Matt McGloin) look good on any given play.

Obviously, the top priority of Bama's defense will be shutting down Redd and the PSU run game and making the terrible Bolden/McGloin tandem beat them.  But their second priority better be jamming Moye at the line and providing safety help to whichever corner is unlucky enough to draw him.  The Tide secondary looks better than it did last year, but Moye is still capable of winning one-on-one battle down the field.  I know Saban & Smart are going to want to blitz the heck out of Penn State in throwing situations, especially in light of some protection troubles they had in week 1, but that creates those single coverage situations Moye can eat up, where even an ugly desperation heave can break bad for the Tide.  Be wary.

5. Get Duron Carter on the field early and often. That may sound strange coming from a guy who just last week was pleading for temperance in Bama fans' expectations for Carter, but bear with me here. In last year's meeting, Alabama was able to exploit a large discrepancy in athleticism between their wide receivers (primarily Julio Jones, Marquis Maze, and Darius Hanks) and PSU's defensive backs to great effect. Trent Richardson made headlines with his rushing totals, but it was this ability to line up 4 and 5 wide and force the Lions to chase better athletes all over the field that gave the Tide it's greatest advantage (see: Kevin "Who?" Norwood's out-of-nowhere 36-yard TD catch in the 1st quarter) and contributed to a comfortable win.

Well, Julio is gone to the NFL, and Hanks is sitting out the last of 2 games mandated by some bureaucratic snafu related to his redshirt. Maze played well in his first game as the #1 receiving option (8 catches for 118 yards and 1 TD), but beyond him, neither QB was able to establish much of a rapport with other receivers against Kent State. DeAndrew White showed flashes of the player he could be, especially on screen passes, but he's no Julio, or even Hanks, yet. Overall, I agree with Saban's assessment that receiver play was soft in the opening week. In fact, aside from Maze and White's production, only 3 passes were caught by other receivers in that game. The Tide must pose more of a threat outside the hashes and down the field, otherwise it just makes Penn State's job defending Richardson much easier. 

That's where Carter comes in. Look, I have no idea what to expect out of the guy at this point. Is he really in game shape? Can you call a deep post for him and trust that your QB won't be serving up a gift interception to a safety when he runs the wrong route? Does he even know where to line up? No clue. But you know who else doesn't have a clue? Penn State. They know they don't have to fear the likes of Brandon Gibson beating them, but Carter? His hype can be a weapon in this game. He may catch 10 balls for 150 yards, or he may catch none. But every time he steps on the field, he'll attract eyeballs his way. And the more eyes that are on him, the more it frees up Maze or Richardson to make plays.

MY PICK:  There are way too many Alabama fans who are predicting this to be a 20 to 30 point win for the Tide.  And it's true that Bama has a landslide advantage in terms of the talent they'll put on the field.  But you can't underestimate the impact that starting an unproven QB and a bunch of dewy-eyed receivers on the road is going to have on the offensive gameplan.  Saban is going to call this game so conservatively, you'll think Bama and Penn State swapped uniforms before the game.  Which is going to play directly into the strength of PSU's defense.  I think there's a real probability that this game turns into a total snoozer to all those who don't have a rooting interest in the outcome.

Alabama is going to try to run the ball to protect their young QB.  Penn State is going to try to stuff the run and make the young QB beat them.

Penn State is going to try to run the ball to hide their terrible QBs.  Alabama is going to focus on stopping the run and make the terrible QBs win it. 

It's going to be "3 yards and a cloud of dust" football at it's most frustratingly joyless.  I can't remember the last time I was fairly certain Alabama was going to win a big game but yet dreaded actually watching it.  And I do see this as a Bama win.  In a mano-a-mano game, go with the bigger, faster, stronger guys, and I think the Tide has them.  As long as McCarron doesn't throw a few gift interceptions to set them up in good field position, I think Penn State is going to struggle moving the ball with their quarterback situation being what it is.  I'm high on Redd, but I have much more faith in Richardson succeeding against a stacked defensive front than him.

But it's definitely going to be closer than the general consensus.

Alabama 19, Penn State 10  

We'll check back after the game to see if they took my advice.