I had some time last night to rewatch the Alabama-Arkansas game from Saturday. Here are a few things I took away from that contest.
Alabama was very fortunate to win.
This nugget is one I found before the first quarter was even over. Arkansas was up 10-7 at the end of the period, but it easily could have been 24-10. Arkansas's defense dropped an interception and couldn't pick up a Greg McElroy fumble before it went out of bounds, both times deep in Bama territory. It could have been 28-7 if Ryan Mallett hadn't missed some open receivers near the end zone when the Razorbacks settled for a field goal.
There's no way of knowing how events would have changed, of course, had Arkansas ran up that big of a lead. Alabama could have changed its strategy and engineered a comeback. However, the Hogs had a chance to put the Tide in a big hole early and didn't take advantage. And this all is to say nothing of the two turnovers that led directly to Alabama's final two scores.
Mallett was great, except when he wasn't.
Mallett is alternately fun and really frustrating to watch. He's got every attribute you could ask for in a drop back passer, and his accuracy has improved over a year ago. It's just that when he misses a receiver, he tends to miss them when they're wide open. Arkansas could have had another touchdown or two if he had just hit guys that were open.
And then there was the fourth quarter. I'll get into it more later, but Mallett had a great first three quarters and a lackluster fourth. You had to figure when it was 20-14 after the third that Arkansas needed to score at least once in the final quarter. Mallett didn't even manage to deliver a field goal, turning in a three-and-out and two interceptions,
McElroy was good, except when he wasn't.
McElroy completed 70% of his passes. Seven of his eight receivers averaged nine or more yards per catch. He also was picked off twice (and should have been a third time) and fumbled one that should have been recovered by Arkansas. His 129.22 passing efficiency was easily his lowest since his mid-season slump of last year, and he overthrew nearly all of his deep passes.
I don't think I could label him a liability because he kept the team moving a lot of the day. But, three of Alabama's five unsuccessful drives ended on him throwing a pick or an incompletion, and another came when two of the last three downs were an overthrow and a sack when he held it too long. Arkansas's defense should get a lot of credit for giving him problems, but he was far from his A game on the day.
Arkansas's front seven was very feast-or-famine.
Arkansas came away with three sacks, including a huge one midway through the fourth quarter that held Alabama to a field goal. However, the Tide rushed for over five yards a carry including those sacks, and Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson combined for over 7.5 yards a carry. At times, Bama's running plays were getting stuffed at the time. At times, the two great backs broke off 50+ yard runs.
You can't expect anyone to get consistent pressure against Alabama's offensive line, so it's not all the front seven's fault. It's just that the defensive line appear to disappear for stretches, and it struggled against the Wildcat and Pistol formations. More consistency the rest of the season would help tremendously.
Alabama's defense really showed it's youth.
The biggest problems Alabama had on defense largely came because the secondary is just young. One breakdown came when DeMarcus Milliner played man coverage when the rest of the defense was in zone. A couple others were in Cover 2 on sophomore safety Robert Lester's side.
The talent is undeniably there, as evidenced by plays like Lester's second quarter interception of Mallett. Plus, it's tough for any secondary to deal with the combination of Arkansas's veteran quarterback with its veteran receivers. However, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart don't appear to have simplified much to compensate for the youth. That means there will be plenty more busted coverages as they grow up and learn to play as a unit.
Arkansas's offense folded in the fourth quarter.
The Razorbacks' third-to-last drive: four-yard run, drop, pass into tight coverage deflected. The Razorbacks' second-to-last drive: drop, holding penalty, dump off, timeout, interception. The final drive moved the ball down the field but included a drop, a throw away bailed out by pass interference, a false start, and the final interception when Mallett didn't throw it away hard enough. Throughout, Mallett was harassed by Bama's front seven.
You knew that Alabama's defense was going to tighten up in the second half, but Arkansas's offense suddenly had execution problems in the fourth quarter. I don't think the Razorbacks had a single drop in the first three quarters, yet it had three in the fourth. Mallett had two interceptions in the quarter, the second being a terrible one for a guy with such a strong arm. Alabama did what it had to do to attack the Hogs' offense and be in position to snare the INTs, but Arkansas's offensive execution took a nose dive in the final quarter.
So what's the final word?
Arkansas is for real when it's not sabotaging itself. The defense is far better this year; it may give up some yards, but it can seriously tighten up when it needs to. The offense is nigh unstoppable when it's on, and the array of skill position players that Mallett has is the envy of just about anyone else. I kind of feel bad now for dropping Arkansas from my BlogPoll top 10 because this team is very impressive.
The hyperbole can end: Alabama is not as good as it was last year. The offense is probably better, but the defense is definitely not the amazing unit it was the last two years. In all, it may be good enough in this season where almost no one seems to be as good as it was last year. However, it's premature to put this team in Atlanta just yet.