Weekly Thoughts Week 1

A look back at Bama/USC & the UA QB battle

Alabama QB Battle

Regarding the Hurts vs Barnett QB battle, let's first look at the drives when Hurts was in the game:

  • Fumble -3 yard drive
  • Punt - 1 yard drive
  • Punt - 28 yard drive
  • 1st TD - First pass completed from the USC 36
  • 1st FG - First pass completed from the USC 16 (46 yard Harris run)
  • 2nd TD - INT TD immediately after ensuing kickoff
  • 3rd TD - First pass completed from the ALA 29 (busted coverage to Stewart)
  • 4th TD - No passes attempted (following fumbled punt on USC 13)
  • INT
  • 5th TD - No passes attempted (Harris 73 yard run)

Of the 38 points when Hurts was in:

  • 21 points came without Hurts ever attempting a pass.
  • 10 points came from drives started within the USC 36 yard line.
  • 7 points came on a busted coverage.

Now, I don't -blame- Hurts for his good luck outlined above, but his first three drives averaged 8 yards versus Barnett's averaging 7. The truth is that once the offensive line gelled we were completely unstoppable and didn't need to punt until the last drive of the game. Further, 8 of our 18 passes came in those first 5 non-scoring drives (ending early in the second quarter)... after that we ended up getting ahead so fast that we really didn't need to throw the ball anymore and only threw 10 passes in about 3 quarters of play.

The trick, as was alluded to with the following analogy earlier this week, is that it's like you flip a coin and look for heads. You flip it twice and it doesn't happen. So you say "this must be a bad coin!", switch coins, flip twice, it still doesn't happen. Except this time you don't give up on the second coin and start getting good results. Is the second coin (quarterback) better? We really can't say. The truth is that Barnett stalled on his first two drives, and Hurts on his first three (with a turnover).

That neither quarterback was overly effective their first few drives (2 for BB, 3 for JH), was seemingly mostly due to the offensive line. In the run of 8 possessions where we scored all our points, we threw 9 passes between both quarterbacks, half of which were 40+ yards (two from each QB). That simply isn't a large enough sample size to make any sort of sound judgment on who is better at this point.

In summary, I don't see how anyone can definitively state which quarterback is the better candidate at this point. One thing I'll emphasize: as Saban said yesterday, Hurts only runs a very limited package. It worked pretty well in the opener, but the opponent had no idea what that package will be. Ole Miss will be able to game plan heavily for that package, so Hurts will have to expand the playbook to be effective. Further, I think it has to be pointed out that Hurts had two turnovers to Barnett's zero. I think Hurts is absolutely the future, but there are still signs that he hasn't had enough time to fully grasp the playbook (that's not a knock, most freshman QBs are completely lost and it's truly exceptional for Hurts to understand a full package at this point), and it may still take some time to get him ready.

The best example I can give of why Hurts still hasn't locked down the job is this clip:

click me I'm a youtube video

This is a flood left and he rolls right. It was obvious in the game, but the best you can tell here is from how when he throws it away there isn't a single receiver on that half of the field. The announcers missed it, but this set up the incomplete pass to Dieter and the last punt before our scoring run. This was just a mental error that came from not fully understanding the play-call.

On Aggressive Defenses

Something I have seen is a lot of people talking about how the USC game was a "fluke" and there were no "consistent drives." However, you have to understand that the offensive production was a result of the defensive style USC took in that game. Clancy Pendergast is a very aggressive defensive coordinator, and with new quarterbacks on the field he chose to play tight man-press coverage, go with a single-high safety, and blitz often. That makes it very difficult to routinely gain good yardage, because you are frequently running into a blitz and there is minimal separation in the short passing game.

The problem with that style of defense is that it gives an almost extreme vulnerability to the big play. Since you are in a single-high safety look, the safety's job becomes preventing the deep post (which is uncoverable one-on-one with no safety), and he tends to shift to the doubled side of the formation in three wide sets. In the USC game, the safety would pretty much always cheat toward Ridley, and would leave Stewart on an absolute island with Iman Marshall. What this means is that any go or fade route is an instant touchdown if the corner makes any mistake. This is why the game had such sudden chunk yardage; Marshall is playing press-man to take away the easy throws underneath. However, with no help over the top, it left him extremely vulnerable to the deep pass. Essentially, USC was preventing any offensive rhythm in the short passing game at the expense of instant-touchdowns if we executed in the deep passing game. This was available almost the whole night, and one of the few exceptions is when USC rolled a safety over Stewart, and Hurts threw an INT when he suddenly had to fit the ball into actual coverage rather than just throwing it over the top.

The problem with that style of defense is that it gives an almost extreme vulnerability to the big play

The success on the deep pass ended up freeing up the run, as well. In a single-high safety look, the safety is frequently not in position to make the tackle in the event that the running back breaks free (he's either way too deep or out of position to cover the pass). That is what allowed Harris to repeatedly break free for long yardage. With an extra safety in the box, USC had an easier time crowding the LOS, which made it especially hard for a bigger back like Bo. However, it also meant that there was really no-one behind the second level, so if a shiftier back like Harris could bounce to daylight he's just gone.

Everyone loves aggressive defenses, and gets mad when their offensive coordinator gives cushions and doesn't get after the QB (see Ole Miss fans against FSU). What they too often don't understand is that an aggressive style of defense may be suffocating if you have superior talent and/or are facing an offense without big-play potential, but it is also capable of getting you quickly and decisively blown out if you face a powerful offense. Too really good examples off the top of my head are the Mississippi State game last year, where MSU stifled Alabama most of the night but lost badly off a few big plays, and Wisconsin-Ohio State in the 2014 B1G championship, where Ohio State used Cardale Jones's big arm to absolutely torch Wisconsin's secondary. Aranda, much like Michigan State, is particularly vulnerable in this fashion because his method of attacking the LOS often leaves true safeties in isolation coverage with receivers (with no safety helping over the top).

For the past several years, aggressive defenses have often been able to stifle the Alabama offense because Alabama lacked the passing game needed to exploit it. From 2008-2014, Alabama really only had receiver that was a threat in the deep-passing game (Julio and Cooper). Teams could roll the safety to help with that one player and leave the other corners on an island. This was made worse by GMac having a weak arm, McCarron frequently struggling with the deep ball, and Sims lacking velocity and accuracy in the passing game (though Sims's did have a solid deep ball that would sometimes come up big). In 2015, Coker simply took too long to release and had a number of games where he simply couldn't connect even when he had time.

Whether it be Barnett or Hurts, the Alabama offense finally has the quarterback (and the receivers) to make teams pay dearly for single-high looks and the secondary attacking the LOS at the snap. This will force teams to keep players back in coverage, which should equate to an offense that is far better at moving the sticks than anything we've seen in recent years. Because, if teams like Ole Miss play downhill like they have in years past, any failure to hit home with the pass rush is likely to surrender a lot of points very, very quickly.