Congratulations, UW. The College Football Playoff Committee has officially acknowledged your outstanding 2016 season. Your prize? A playoff date against the undefeated #1 team in the nation in the Peach Bowl.
How do you like ‘dem apples. errrrrr .... peaches?
If you are Chris Petersen trying to get a handle on this match up, the stats look daunting. In fact, it probably isn’t useful to look at the stats. It might be worth just going straight to the tape. Of course, once you do, you come to realize that watching ‘Bama on film is like watching a mashup of Wes Craven and Jake Gyllenhall movies: simultaneously scary as hell and hopelessly depressing.
Fear not, I say. Just like every other FBS program, Alabama is still a team comprised of 85 scholarship players with a relatively even mix of young men ranging in age from 18-21. That is to say, they have gaps. They have weaknesses. They have things that they do not-as-well as other things that they do very well. When they aren’t popping TD runs on Saturdays, they are popping pimples on Tuesdays ... all just like everyone else’s kids.
What, then, is the secret to beating the Alabama Crimson Tide? Over the next few weeks, this blogging staff will dive into that question more deeply. My first impression - and this comes from just my own experience as a casual observer watching the Tide this season and referencing the stats - is that there are three keys that Petersen is going to want to emphasize for his team.
(1) Take advantage of their young QB
Jalen Hurts is a talent, to be sure. He’s got good size (6’2”, 210lbs), he’s got a big arm and he can absolutely gash you with his legs. On film, he looks exactly like Sam Darnold with maybe just a smidge less downfield accuracy but a bit more athleticism. His capabilities blended into an offense that has athletic perimeter playmakers and a mountain-like offensive line is a nightmare for any defensive coordinator.
But Hurts is still a true freshman. When he gets rattled, he is the weak link of Lane Kiffin’s attack. The numbers bear this out. While he has a nice completion percentage on the year (65%), his yards per attempt are middle of the pack (7.6 ypa - 48th in nation) and his quarterback rating is south of guys such as Brad Kayaa, Luke Falk and even fellow true freshman QB Justin Herbert.
So, how do you rattle a young QB?
The first and easiest answer is pressure. It remains to be seen if UW will have enough team health restored to return to their old ways of pressuring with a four-man rush. If so, great. More than likely, though, UW will have to get after Hurts early by blitzing Budda Baker and Keishawn Bierria. There is risk, but that is one element.
A better route to rattle a young running QB is by taking away his early reads and forcing him to make progressions that he isn’t used to making. These are the situations where young QBs expire their “internal clocks” and get goaded into mistakes. Diagnosing those initial reads and countering them is where the magic of Chris Peteresen’s game prep comes into play. He needs to figure out what one or two reads Hurts is comfortable making out of the base offense, try to scheme against those, and then cover the threat of a run. Tall order, right? But if you can take away Hurts’ primary read on a passing down and cover his run, you have a chance at goading him into turnovers or negative plays.
(2) Zero turnovers
This is true in just about any game, but it is especially true against Alabama.
On paper, UW actually has an advantage here. They lead the nation in turnovers and turnover margin. They have only lost twelve turnovers all season. Alabama, on the other hand, has lost 19 turnovers evenly split among fumbles (10) and interceptions (9). Their total turnover margin is plus 5 given that they have generated 24 forced turnovers of their own.
And it is those forced turnovers that have me concerned. 24 takeaways in an 8-team SEC schedule is an an ok-not-great stat for a team like the Crimson Tide. However, when Alabama creates a turnover, they tend to make teams pay for it. Eleven of ‘Bama’s 24 turnovers turned into TDs scored by the defense. Housing a turnover is a point of pride of the Tide D and they are trained specifically to make that happen when they generate a takeaway.
UW is far more likely to turn the ball over in the passing game than the rushing attack. In fact, UW has not lost a fumble by a running back all season. Neither Myles Gaskin or Lavon Coleman have coughed the ball up a single time (Jomon Dotson has one fumble, but it was recovered by UW). The rushing attack, therefore, has to be a critical part of UW’s strategy even if it appears that Alabama will have a major advantage in terms of being able to shut it down. In addition, UW has to think long and hard about how it wants to go about taking their shots downfield given that the risk of an interception being turned into points (directly or indirectly) is so much higher against Alabama than other teams.
Alabama won’t overwhelm you with their offense on most days and usually only have scoreboards that get out of control when the defense (and special teams) have contributed scores to the overall scoring mix. By eliminating your turnovers altogether, you maximize the chance for you to keep the score within range.
(3) Win the field position battle
If UW can take care of points one and two, the field position game could become a source of advantage. UW has one of the better punt return units in the nation and has a considerable advantage (for whatever reason) over Alabama in the kickoff return game. They are also riding the high of having just seen Tristan Vizcaino pull off what I consider the best game that he’s ever played as a punter.
Alabama is not a team that is going to try to “quick-strike” or boat race their competition. They are much more interested in leveraging their depth of athletes to establish physical domination so that they can wear you down and minimize the threat of you putting up a fight in the second half of a game. Thus, UW can resist the notion of overvaluing any single position and play with the long game in mind.
The Tide’s front seven is a defining advantage in this game. UW cannot count on many long drives ending in scores of their own. Their best strategy is to keep Alabama pinned as far back as in starting field position as possible, try to limit the Tide to three or four scoring drives max, and hope that a few extra possessions off of turnovers can result in short fields. UW does have a huge Red Zone TD % advantage over Alabama (75% vs 61%). A game plan that emphasizes field position allows this advantage to be exploited if it can be pulled off.
Nobody is claiming that this is going to be easy. And it may well be the case that you find these “keys” to be too fundamental-ish for your liking. But the truth of the matter is that Alabama plays a nothing-fancy, your-guys-versus-our-guys brand of football. If UW can execute on these keys, effectively neutralizing the ‘Bama passing offense and exerting some areas where they have natural advantage, they’ll at least have a puncher’s chance in the Peach Bowl.