QB position no longer a question mark for the Crimson Tide
By Mitch Light
It was far from the most stressful environment, and his team was favored by more than four touchdowns. But AJ McCarron made a nice statement Saturday night in Tuscaloosa as the Crimson Tide cruised past Vanderbilt, 34–0. Alabama’s sophomore quarterback played the best game of his short career against a Vanderbilt team that entered the game ranked 11th in the nation in total defense and fourth in the nation in passing efficiency defense.
McCarron had season-highs in completions (23), attempts (30), passing yards (237) and touchdowns (four). And most important, he did not throw an interception against a Commodore defense that had picked off 14 passes in its first four games. McCarron, who threw two picks in the first game of the season against Kent State, has now gone
21 quarters without throwing an interception.
“AJ played pretty well,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, never one to offer effusive praise for his players. “He didn’t turn the ball over which was really important.”
The quarterback position was one of the few question marks for this Alabama team. McCarron beat out Phillip Sims in the preseason for the starting assignment and is trying to prove that he has what it takes — both physically and mentally — to run Alabama’s pro-style offense. He is 6–0 as a starter, with wins at Penn State and at Florida on his resume.
Alabama has already shown that it can run the ball with success. The Crimson Tide will need to prove that it can pass the ball — and do so in big spots — to be a championship team. Saturday night, McCarron and his offense took a step in the right direction.
“I definitely think we are an offense that can run and pass at will when we are clicking on all cylinders,” said tight end Brad Smelley. “I think we showed tonight that if you try to load the box, we can definitely make plays over the top and find the zones and the spaces that are open in there. We are a two phase team so we can run and pass.”
Alabama was particularly effective on third down against Vanderbilt, converting a season-high 70.6 percent (12-of-17). For the season, McCarron has completed 29-of-46 passes (63.0 percent) on third down with 23 of those 29 completions resulting in a first down.
If that type of production in the passing game continues, no one will question McCarron’s ability to be a championship quarterback.
AROUND THE SEC
• Tennessee’s Tyler Bray had thrown at least two touchdown passes in 10 straight games before being shut out by Georgia on Saturday night. Bray will be out of action for 4-6 weeks with a broken thumb.
• In two SEC games, Tennessee’s tailbacks have rushed for only 49 yards on 30 carries.
• In a 38–14 loss to Arkansas, Auburn was held scoreless for three straight quarters in the same game for the first time in the Gus Malzahn era.
• Vanderbilt’s average of 4.4 yards per play against Alabama was the highest of any Crimson Tide opponent this season. The Commodores, however, only had 43 offensive snaps, resulting in 190 total yards.
• Kentucky attempted a total of 26 passes for 17 yards in its 54–3 loss at South Carolina. The Cats averaged 0.65 yards per attempt.
• Arkansas has 109 plays of 10 yards or more this season. Kentucky and Vanderbilt each have only 44 such plays from scrimmage.
• Florida has been outgained 819 to 425 over the last two weeks.
• LSU has only allowed four sacks in six games. The Tigers are the only team in the league that is giving up less than one per game.
• South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore broke a two-game stretch of sub-100-yard games. He gained 102 yards on 22 carries against Kentucky, though he was held without a touchdown for the first time this season.
The Auburn Tigers averaged 41.3 points in their first 25 victories of the Gus Malzahn era. But in the 26th win — arguably one of the most unlikely — the Tigers scored only 16 points and managed only 358 yards despite running a season-high — by 29 snaps — 92 offensive plays. Still, despite those offensive struggles, Auburn found a way to get it done, edging South Carolina 16–13 in Columbia for a precious SEC road win.
The Tigers, shockingly, won this game on defense. A unit that entered the weekend ranked 110th in the nation in total defense, 112th in rushing defense and 90th in scoring defense, somehow, some way found a way to slow down a South Carolina offense that features elite offensive talent in the form of tailback Marcus Lattimore and wideout Alshon Jeffery. The same Auburn defense that gave up 38 points and 448 total yards to a Utah State team that featured a true freshman quarterback limited South Carolina to a season-low 289 yards. The same Auburn defense that gave up 34 points to Mississippi State (which, by the way, has averaged 14 points since playing the Tigers) and 38 points to Clemson held South Carolina to its lowest total since a 20–7 loss to UConn in the 2009 Papajohns.com bowl.
Auburn’s plan of attack on the defensive end was to slow down Lattimore, who entered the weekend averaging 152.8 yards per game. That, however, is easier said than done — especially for a defense that was giving up 226.5 yards per game on the ground.
“I knew for all intents and purposes we had to stop 21 (Marcus Lattimore) running it, or it would be hard to win,” head coach Gene Chizik said after the game.
Mission — somehow — accomplished.
Lattimore was held to season lows of 17 carries and 66 yards. As a whole, the South Carolina offense struggled to sustain drives all game long. The Gamecocks only had one drive that went for more than 50 yards and only one drive that lasted more than five plays.
Clearly, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier envisioned his team having more success.
“(Auburn) hadn’t been playing very well defensively,” Spurrier said. “We made them look like about the best defense in the league most of the night. I think we had two long balls and that was about it. We got nothing consistently.”
South Carolina will have an opportunity to get back in the win column next week when struggling Kentucky visits Columbia, while Auburn braces for a three-game gauntlet that features trips to Arkansas and LSU sandwiched around a home game vs. Florida.
Can Chizik and the Tigers keep the magic going?
AROUND THE SEC
• Vic Ballard only had eight carries in Mississippi State’s 24–10 loss at Georgia, his fewest against an FBS opponent since his Week 2 last season vs. Auburn.
• LSU only gave up 155 yards of offense to Kentucky, and almost half of those (70) came on a fourth quarter drive with the Tigers holding a 35–0 lead.
• Consider this: Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense (8.4 ppg) and has already played Florida, Arkansas and Penn State.
• Kentucky (139.4 ypg) and Vanderbilt (124.3 ypg) combined are averaging 263.2 passing yards per game — a total that would rank third in the SEC behind Arkansas and Tennessee.
• Stephen Garcia has now thrown 50 interceptions in his South Carolina career.
• Tennessee continues to lead the SEC in third down conversions at 62.1 percent. Next on the list is LSU at 46.5 percent. The Vols were 10th in the league last year at 36.5 percent.
• Ole Miss should get Fresno State on the schedule every year. Over the last two years, the Rebs are 5–10 vs. FBS opponents, with two of the wins coming against Fresno State. Last year, Ole Miss scored a season-high 55 points vs. the Bulldogs (averaged 26.4 vs. all other FBS team). Last Saturday, Ole Miss broke out with 38 points vs. FSU after averaging 11.0 points in three previous games vs. FBS competition.
The Commodores headline Athlon's Week 3 SEC Notebook
By Mitch Light
Vanderbilt’s hot start has made national news. The Commodores, fresh off a dominating 30–7 win over Ole Miss, are 3–0 under first-year head coach James Franklin.
But despite the epic struggles this program has endured over the past five decades, this is not uncharted territory for Vanderbilt football. In fact, this is the third time in the past seven years the Commodores have opened a season with a 3–0 mark — something that only 31 of the other 119 FBS programs can claim.
This might sound a bit obvious, but beating Georgia is a very good sign for South Carolina football. Consider the following: The Gamecocks are a combined 25–23 in the SEC in the six seasons in which they have defeated Georgia. On the other hand, they are 36–67–1 in conference games in the 13 seasons in which they have lost to the Bulldogs, and only once, in 2005, has South Carolina had a winning SEC record without beating Georgia.
So it’s clear that the Georgia game serves as a pretty accurate barometer for South Carolina. When the Gamecocks are good enough to beat Georgia, they are usually good enough to be a factor in the SEC East.
This season, Carolina will be more than a factor — I think at this point it’s clear to call Steve Spurrier’s club the favorite (despite what you might have read in Athlon Sports’ 2011 preview). Until we see what Florida looks like against a quality opponent, it’s hard to make the argument that South Carolina isn’t the best team in the SEC East.
Sure, the defense has been shaky, but Steve Spurrier’s club boasts some serious star power on both sides of the ball. South Carolina might have the best running back (Marcus Lattimore) and best wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery) in the SEC — and maybe the nation. Defensively, true freshman Jadeveon Clowney is already showing signs why he was one of the most hyped recruits of the past decade, and junior Stephon Gilmore is one of the elite cornerbacks in college football. And we can’t forget about Melvin Ingram, a 271-pound defensive end who recorded nine sacks last season and scored two touchdowns, one on a 68-yard fake punt, in the win over Georgia.
“I think Melvin Ingram deserves a lot of credit for making some huge plays,” Spurrier said after the game. “He’s a heck of an athlete.”
Lattimore, however, is the key to this team. The sophomore tailback carried the ball 27 times for 176 yards against Georgia, with 94 of his yards coming in the decisive fourth quarter. I’d estimate that a team that has its tailback rush for 90-plus yards in the fourth quarter has about a 99 percent chance of winning that game.
Lattimore’s heroics allowed South Carolina to win despite a subpar game from quarterback Stephen Garcia. In his first start of his senior season, Garcia completed only 11-of-25 passes for 142 yards, and he was intercepted two times. The Gamecocks will need Garcia to play well to win an SEC championship, but they don’t need him to be the best quarterback in the league. His supporting cast is good enough — especially at the skill positions — for his team to win without 300-yard, four-touchdown games each week.
With the Georgia hurdle behind them — and successfully cleared — the Gamecocks now return to Columbia for a four-game home stand against Navy, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Kentucky. It will be a surprise if South Carolina is not 6–0 (and 4–0 in the SEC) when it hits the road for dates with Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Around the SEC
• Tennessee ranks fourth in the nation with a 66.7 percent success rate on third down, having converted 20 of 30 opportunities through two games. Last season, the Vols ranked 88th in the nation on third downs (36.5 percent).
• UConn marched 72 yards on 13 plays in its first drive (ending in a field goal) against Vanderbilt, but the Commodores only gave up 121 total yards on 52 plays the rest of the game.
• The LSU defense has only given up one play of 20-plus yards this season — even more impressive when you consider that the Tigers opened up against Oregon.
• It’s not all bad news at Georgia. Freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell looks like he will be a major contributor this season. He rushed for 118 yards on 16 carries against South Carolina and has a healthy 5.7-yard average in two games against quality competition.
• Auburn is 2–0 but ranks 111th in the nation in total defense (489.5 ypg) and 118th in rushing defense (280.0 ypg). It’s still too early to put too much stock in national rankings, but defensive coordinator Ted Roof can’t be pleased with those numbers.
• Ole Miss will have to tighten up its run defense, as well, after Southern Illinois rushed for 223 yards on 38 carries in last week’s 42–24 Rebel victory.
• Alabama has allowed a total of three points in the first half of its two games this season.
• Kentucky coach Joker Phillips raved about Josh Clemons in preseason camp, and the true freshman came through with a 14-carry, 128-yard effort against Central Michigan on Saturday. Clemons gave Kentucky its first lead of the game late in the third quarter when he broke free for an 87-yard touchdown. In two games, he has 165 yards on 25 carries.
Oregon's LaMichael James is back for another run as the Heisman.
They're the teams within the team - those cohesive little units bound together by their shared responsibilities within the larger team context.
Whether it's the offensive linemen firing off time after time into those familiar blocking sleds, or the defensive linemen drilling repeatedly on how to shed blockers, or the defensive backs breaking on ball after ball - these teams in miniature hone their tasks on the practice field until those tasks become second nature.