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September 13, 2010

Upon Further Review: Penn State at Alabama

A version of the following conversation will occur at 10 different schools across the region over the next couple of months. What they all have in common is that the University of Alabama is on the football schedule.

"Ok, here's the start of the Penn State game," someone says in a coaching meeting. "The Crimson Tide is pinned up deep in its own territory and starts pounding its way out. That drive stalls but here's another one, the running back has successive carries of 11, 16 and 33 yards and they grind out 97 yards."

"Look at those second-level blocks downfield. On the 16-yarder the big wide receiver takes out a linebacker and the next play it's a cornerback."

"That running back is good, too."

"Oh, yeah, he's the backup. The starter was out hurt."

"Seriously?"

"Then this is the second possession, five wide including the running back, and the formation doesn't include the top receiver. It's like they called a shift change in hockey."

"I'm getting a headache. Show me the defense."

"More bad news. Alabama usually sets up in a 3-4 with a linebacker on the line, but against Penn State essentially went with a 4-3 ... unless it was a passing down. They rotate guys like an NFL team and lot of the players will someday be on one."

"The best defensive lineman didn't play in that game either and Penn State still couldn't find the end zone."

"Pass the aspirin. We have our work cut out for us."

As wide receiver Darius Hanks summed up, every opponent has to wonder, "What are you coming out in?"

Here are the awards following No. 1 Alabama's commanding 24-3 victory over the No. 18 Nittany Lions:

Play of the game: Instead of a play, the best moment of the game was before kickoff, when Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Nick Saban met at midfield. "It's easy when you're retired, boys," Bowden told them.

Player of the game: Sophomore running back Trent Richardson had a terrific day with 207 all-purpose yards including 144 rushing. Coming in, Penn State hadn't yielded a 100-yard rushing performance in 17 games, which was the third-longest streak in the nation behind Ohio State and Alabama (36).

Statistic of the game: The last time Alabama gave up just six points through its first two games was 1979 - the last time Alabama repeated as national champions.

Bonus statistic: A true freshman quarterback has never defeated a No. 1 team on its home field (although Rob Bolden played pretty well and showed a lot of poise).

Hit of the game: Sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower put a good lick on Bolden just as he was attempting a pass in the first quarter, with the errant pass caught by reserve safety Will Lowery for his first career interception.

Did you notice? On senior H-back Preston Dial's first career touchdown catch Richardson upended junior defensive tackle Devon Still (6-foot-5, 311 pounds) on blitz pickup.

Here are 10 other things about Saturday's game at Bryant-Denny Stadium:

The fumble/fumble play: The officials were from the Big Ten while the replay crew was from the SEC. Somewhere in the middle of making a ruling the Big Ten officials made an error. The initial fumble, forced by junior safety Mark Barron and recovered by sophomore safety Robert Lester was the correct call. Of course, 6-foot-5 receiver Derek Moye did a great job of chasing Lester down and forcing another fumble, with sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick finally landing on the ball at the Penn State 2 when it was again knocked loose and grabbed by 6-6 receiver Brett Brackett. Referee Dave Witvoet signaled first down for Alabama, and another official clearly told the Penn State players that it was the Crimson Tide's ball. After consulting with replay officials Witvoet announced that the initial ruling on the field had been confirmed, which should have meant Alabama's ball. However, it was only then that the signal was changed to first down Penn State. In short, the Big Ten officials flip-flopped their original ruling.

Trickle-down injuries: Alabama used 57 players, but some of the attrition it faced was best reflected on kickoff coverage where nearly half the unit was substituted during the game. It began with Kirkpatrick, Brandon Gibson, Phelon Jones, Eddie Lacy, Chavis Williams, Cade Foster, Chris Jordan, Alex Watkins, Robert Lester, Will Lowery and DeMarcus Milliner. Lacy was replaced by reserve safety Wesley Neighbors, who missed last week with a knee injury. When Kirkpatrick started cramping up in the second quarter Hanks took his place. Junior Chris Jordan hurt his shoulder on a hit collision with linebacker Michael Yancich during the early second-quarter kickoff. Freshman Jalston Fowler initially took his spot (freshman C.J. Mosley replaced him on passing downs), and then sophomore Nico Johnson. Sophomore B.J. Scott took Milliner's place after he sustained a hamstring pull (Jones went in at cornerback) and freshman Jarrick Williams spelled Lowery. Incidentally, the hands team for the onside kick featured Earl Alexander, Hanks, Barron, Gibson on one side, with Michael Williams, Brad Smelley, Preston Dial and Chris Underwood the front-line players on the other with Dont'a Hightower protecting Julio Jones, who cleanly fielded the kick.

More injury news: Senior left tackle James Carpenter may have aggravated a previous injury. There were times during the game he seemed to be slightly bothered by something physically, and wasn't involved in a hit or block on his final play. Carpenter pulled himself after the first play of the fourth quarter, a 5-yard run over the left end with him pulling, and limped into the locker room with an apparent sprain. Junior receiver Marquis Maze appeared to come down oddly on his right foot on his 20-yard reception on the final play of the third quarter.

McElroy's day: Senior quarterback Greg McElroy was 16-of-24 (66.7 percent) for 229 yards and two touchdowns. He had two receivers slip while running routes and two passes dropped. Alabama receivers accumulated 144 yards after the catch. McElroy started getting frustrated after missing his first two attempts of the second half and then Hanks caught a short pass that should have resulted in a first down but he tired to cut back toward the middle and was stopped three yards short. He responded by completing his final six attempts (seven including the Hanks catch) and then didn't throw the ball in the fourth quarter. McElroy was 12-for-13 on the three touchdown possessions, the only miss a drop. He was 4-for-4 for 79 yards on the first TD drive, 2-for-3 and 22 yards on the second, and 6-for-6 for 50 yards on the third. McElroy was sacked twice, once on a blitz when Alabama didn't have anyone in the backfield and Carpenter got beat on the other. McElroy was 3-for-5 on third downs and he hasn't had a pass intercepted in 137 attempts.

The running game: Last week nearly every Richardson run was to the right. This time he went almost exclusive left. While accumulating 102 rushing yards in the first half, of which 73were after the initial contact, he had just one run behind the right side, an 8-yard gain out of the wildcat. He rarely ran up the middle in the second half.

Explosive plays: Surprisingly, Penn State had as many explosive plays as Alabama, seven. Saban defines an explosive play a run of 13 yards or more or a pass of 17 yards or more, and a big gain as a run of 16 yards or more or a pass of 21 yards or more. The Nittany Lions' lone explosive running play was on a corner blitz when Kirkpatrick didn't contain and the Shawney Kersey went 24 yards. The cornerback was also covering on slant receptions of 20 and 18 yards. The Tide had two explosive runs, on successive plays during the second touchdown drive. In big plays Alabama had six compared to Penn State's two. Alabama's biggest gain was freshman Kevin Norwood's 36-yard touchdown on a crossing route and Penn State's was the nice over-the shoulder sideline catch by Moye for 31 yards (FYI, it was the only pass completed on Milliner, and no passes were completed on junior DeQuan Menzie at star). Incidentally, the play that both San Jose State and Penn State arguably had the most success with was a play-action throw to a receiver who usually went into motion and crossed all the way behind his line before catching a pass.

Red-zone offense: Alabama had three possessions inside the 20 and scored on each, but once settled for a field goal. Last season the Crimson Tide scored touchdowns on just 47.5 percent of possessions inside the 20, which ranked 108th in the nation. So far, Alabama has scored four touchdowns in seven trips, 57.1 percent. McElroy completed 2-of-3 passes in the red zone and just missed 6-4 Julio Jones with 5-8 cornerback Stephon Morris in coverage on the incompletion, but Alabama was also flagged for an illegal formation.

Red-zone defense: Penn State had three possessions in the red zone and managed just a field goal, with the other two ending in turnovers. Neither opponent this season has gotten closer than the 13-yard line, managing just three carries for 10 yards, 2-of-6 pass attempts for nine yards, and no first downs.

Wildcat formation: Alabama ran six plays for 33 yards, the longest gain an 11-yard carry through the right side. Through two games the Tide has run eight plays out of the formation resulting in 49 yards (6.125 average). That's only slightly better than the Tide's 5.8 average per carry. But Alabama did show two new wrinkles, having Maze take a snap and go around the left end for a 7-yard gain, and the tackle tandem of D.J. Fluker and Carpenter lined up together for the first time on the right side.

Penalties: Alabama was flagged six times, one was declined, for 33 yards, and all appeared to the correct call even though cameras didn't have a good angle on sophomore guard Chance Warmack's second false-start penalty and third overall. His first foul ended a string of 42 quarters the offensive line didn't have anyone flagged for holding. Saban clearly wasn't happy with the illegal-substitution penalty on fourth-and-1 following a timeout, one of many mistakes the team will hear a lot about this week. Penn State had just one penalty, five yards on a false start. Incidentally, the short pass to Richardson that fans thought the sideline official made a poor spot resulting in fourth-and-1 was actually correct even though he had a bad angle.


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