By RALPH MANCINI - CFI SENIOR WRITER
7:45 PM * ESPN * SANFORD STADIUM
THE 4-0 ALABAMA Crimson Tide face their toughest opponent yet this Saturday in the third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs as they play “between the hedges”.
When the Tide Have the Ball
WHEN YOU TALK about Alabama football, everything starts with their running game. Coming off a 162-yard, two touchdown performance in ‘Bama’s 49-14 rout of Arkansas last week, Glenn Coffee is a supremely-gifted runner who can take it between the tackles or break it to the outside. Coffee’s burst makes him a big-play threat that always has to be accounted for. Backup running back Mark Ingram is a true freshman who has endeared himself to teammates with his take-no-prisoners style of play, which often sees him break several tackles. Ingram has quickly earned the trust of coach Nick Saban by carrying the ball late in games to grind some clock. Both Coffee and Ingram run behind one of the more experienced offensive lines in college football, led by All-American candidate Andre Smith at left tackle. The 6’5” 340 lb. lineman had key blocks last week on four of Alabama’s touchdowns against Arkansas. Versatile junior Mike Johnson is another standout along that line. The Crimson Tide also boasts firepower at wide out with true freshman Julio Jones, who has the size, speed and leaping ability to strike fear in the heart of any secondary. Senior tight end Nick Walker is another weapon that defenses need to be aware of. Unlike Georgia’s Matthew Stafford, Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson is a caretaker in this offense. Saban will seldom put the game in his hands due to his less-than-stellar arm strength and questionable decision-making.
Alabama’s running game will certainly be put to the test by a ferocious Georgia defense that features a disruptive defensive line and a hard-hitting linebacker corps. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is a supreme run-stuffing defender, who frequently makes his way into the opponent’s backfield. Middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe also contributes in stopping the run by filling in the open spaces behind his defensive line. Outside linebacker Rennie Curran is a phenomenal athlete that constantly makes plays due to his to his great instincts and lateral quickness. Fellow outside linebacker Darryl Gamble is valuable for his ability to shut down tight ends. Due to the absence of star lineman Jeff Owens (who suffered a season-ending injury) and a premier defensive end, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez has made a point of utilizing his linebackers more as pass rushers. Asher Allen is the Bulldogs’ top defensive back. The 5’10” cornerback is a difference maker who can force fumbles, blitz quarterbacks and return kicks as well as cover receivers like a glove. Sophomore safety Reshad Jones is an emerging talent.
When the Dawgs Have the Ball
QUARTERBACK MATTHEW STAFFORD is the complete package when it comes to throwing the football. In addition to having an absolute howitzer of an arm, the 6’3” junior can also put nice touch on his passes when necessary. Critics will often highlight his penchant for leaving the pocket and tossing interceptions, but Stafford has improved in that area this season and has yet to throw a pick in his first four games. Stafford’s number one deep threat is true freshman A.J. Green, who usually gains good separation from his defenders and uses his outstanding body control to make acrobatic plays in the air and along the sidelines. Coming off an eight catch, 169-yard performance versus Arizona State last week, Green just continues to improve. If the Bulldogs’ passing attack wasn’t enough to keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night, running back Knowshon Moreno is one of the top players at his position. After bursting onto the scene with 1,334 yards as a freshman in 2007, the New Jersey native seems to be the closest thing to Herschel Walker with his low 4.4 speed, vision and athleticism, which he’ll occasionally use to quite literally jump over oncoming defenders. Moreno’s backfield partner Caleb King is no slouch either. The freshman has proven to be a very dynamic back. A preseason injury to left tackle Trinton Sturdivant has forced coach Mark Richt to shift some of his linemen to different positions. Center Ben Jones and right tackle Justin Anderson, both freshmen, made their first career starts last week.
Alabama’s defense, which is ranked eight in the nation versus the run (55 ypg and 2.2 ypc), features a three-man defensive line, anchored by noseman Terrance Cody. The line is flanked by two outside linebackers, Cory Reamer and Brandon Fanney playing on the edges. Sopho-more inside linebacker Rolando McClain is the motor of this impenetrable front seven. The 6’4” McClain is a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine, who leads the defense in that category with 29. The former tight end can also make plays in space and move to the outside if called upon. Fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower is a powerful player who’s also a run-stuffing force with 17 tackles through four games. Running back turned free safety Rashad Johnson was last year’s revelation on defense and has become a dominant component of this unit. Johnson is a good hitter with remarkable closing speed. The senior’s knowledge of Alabama’s defensive scheme allows him to effectively diagnose the opposition’s plays. The Crimson Tide corners play a very physical brand of football led by Kareem Jackson and emerging playmaker Javier Arenas, aka Agent 28. In addition to being one of the more electrifying kick returners in the country, Arenas can also be a difference maker in pass coverage, as evidenced by his 63-yard score off a Casey Dick interception last week.
WHILE THE TEAMS match-up very well in most areas, Georgia’s playmakers will be hard to contain for four quarters. Look for Stafford to hook up with Green on a few big plays and for that to be the difference in what should be a close contest.
Final Score: Georgia 24 Alabama 16
Photo Credit: SEC Sports Media
Saturday, September 27, 2008
By RALPH MANCINI - CFI SENIOR WRITER