The only statistic that counts in football is wins. Let’s be very clear about this because of what I am about to say: Arkansas got the win, Alabama did not. Having said that, the better team did not win the game and the loss puts a big dent on the Crimson Tide’s hopes for this season.
I know what you are thinking, and you are wrong. This is not going to be a column devoted to piling on the struggles of freshman kicker Leigh Tiffin. I am not. Well, not entirely. Tiffin is a specialist. He had one job and he failed at it. He missed three field goals (one in overtime that would have won the game) and missed an extra point that would have allowed the game to go to a third overtime. That is 10 points he left on the board in a one point loss. It should have never gotten to that point.
Quarterback John Parker Wilson, making his first career start on the road, completed 80 percent of his passes for three scores (two of them in regulation). His final line: 16-for-20, 243 yards, 3 touchdowns 0 interceptions
Wide receivers D.J. Hall (6 rec., 144 yards, 1 TD) and Keith Brown: (7 rec., 96 yards, 1 TD) came up huge as well. This season, Brown has had receiving totals of 132, 99, 82, and 96 and Hall was the team’s leading wide receiver from last year. That is big boy football.
Until Saturday — and even this is debatable — Alabama had not faced quality competition but the same defenses torched by Brown and now Hall were also responsible for stuffing the Tide’s running game. Their two featured backs, Ken Darby and Jimmy Johns, combined for just 87 yards on 34 carries. Darby came into the season seemingly poised to eclipse Shaun Alexander as the team’s leading rusher, but has averaged three yards per carry this season. Neither he nor Johns were able to average those three yards against Arkansas.
Patience with the running game is not only understandable, it is a necessity. This is not patience, this is stubbornness. Arrogance. Stupidity. Why in the world would run the ball twice as many times as you throw it when the running game is averaging 2.3 yards per carry and the passing game produces 243 yards and three scores? A passing game should always average more yards per attempt than even a good running game, but 2.3 yards per rush and 9.6 yards per pass should tip the run/pass balance in favor of the pass.
Going beyond the numbers, Mike Shula repeatedly called running plays that sent Darby and Johns at the middle of the Arkansas defense. The gains were minimal at best and it put the offense in third-and-long situations all afternoon. This is not new. It is very similar to what happened in previous games this season. Despite being at a disadvantage, Wilson and the passing game consistently made plays.
Most offensive coordinators at all levels believe in the concept of running to set up the pass. It is sound football strategy. There are coaches who prefer passing to set up the run. There are some coaches who adjust to the way the game is being played and make moving the ball and scoring the ball their primary objective rather than foolish adherence to a broken game plan.
And now let’s look at Arkansas’ offense:
Quarterback Mitch Mustain: 7-for-22, 97 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptiions
Running back Darren McFadden: 25 carries, 113 yards, 1 TD
Running back Felix Jones: 4 car., 65 yards
McFadden is the best running back in the SEC (sorry, Kenny Irons, but you saw this coming). No one outside the SEC (and Auburn) knows this because Arkansas really is a bad team and McFadden will fly under the radar just as Norwood did at Mississippi State. Stopping him is all a team can hope to accomplish.
One way Alabama might have contained the Arkansas ground game was by putting a lot of points on the board through its passing game. Hang 21 quick points on an opponent and see how many times they run the football. Most coaches, presumably those not named Shula, would or reduce the number of rushing plays or abandon them altogether to get back in the game. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
On the flipside, Mustain, a freshman, could not consistently complete passes despite having a 6’6″ receiver in Marcus Monk. His only touchdown pass came in the second overtime. The Razorback passing game showed no sign of being a consistent threat. It did not have to be. Alabama could not slow the run and could not force Mustain to beat them with his arm.
Tiffin is an easy scapegoat but the kicking game will right itself in good time. As Jamie Christiansen recovers from injury, he will replace Tiffin as Alabama’s kicker. Last year Christiansen kicked three game-winning field goals last year. Shula better fix the play calling or Tiffin will not be the only one being replaced.