The Alabama Crimson Tide took on their first test of the 2011 season, and had little problems disposing of the Penn State Nittany Lions, 27-11 at Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The concerns over the weather were unfounded, as the two teams played on a good surface with no rain at least during the game. That was probably my biggest concern coming into this game with AJ McCarron making his first road start.
The Nittany Lions were looking for a better showing than last season in Tuscaloosa, and came out amped. Penn State got the ball first and ate 7:26 of the clock with a 16-play 54-yard drive that eventually stalled and led to Anthony Ferra connecting on a 43 yard-field goal for the game’s first points. But, after that strong opening drive for the Nittany Lions, the Crimson Tide’s defense shut them down, and frustrated both Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin.
After Alabama went three-and-out on their first drive, they forced a Penn State three-and-out and went on a scoring drive of their own. Alabama’s went 11-plays for 69-yards and was capped off by an AJ McCarron touchdown pass to Michael Williams to give Alabama a 7-3 lead. The drive was aided by a gutsy fake punt on a 4th-and-1, where the upback Brad Smelley took the snap and inexplicably ran it up the gut instead of bouncing outside for what could have been a huge gain. Fortunately, Alabama received a generous spot and moved the chains, leading to the touchdown.
Penn State’s offense never even threatened the rest of the half, and Alabama was able to build their lead. Jeremy Shelley hit a 22-yard field goal to put the Tide up 10-3 after a 10-play drive, and later in the half, the Crimson Tide found pay-dirt for the second time. Dre Kirkpatrick made an excellent defensive play, forcing Andrew Szczerba to fumble, and Alabama pounced on it at midfield.
10-plays later, Trent Richardson punched in a three-yard touchdown to send Alabama into halftime with a 17-3 lead and in complete control of the game. The third quarter was largely uneventful, with both teams trading punts on their first few possessions until the Crimson Tide finally broke through. They went 50-yards on 11-plays, but stalled at the goal line, and had to settle for an 18-yard field goal from Shelley that put ‘Bama up 20-3.
Alabama put the game away in the fourth quarter following another Dre Kirkpatrick forced fumble, this time on Devon Smith, as Mark Barron pounced on it to set the Tide up at their own 34. Alabama leaned on the fresh legs of Eddie Lacy as he ran it four straight times for 52 yards including a 30-yard run that set Alabama up up with a first-and-goal from the nine. Trent Richardson finished off the tired Penn State defense, punching in his second touchdown of the game, his fifth of the season, to push Alabama’s lead to 27-3.
The Nittany Lions added a meaningless touchdown late in the game to make the score closer than the game was, as Alabama walked out of Happy Valley with an impressive 27-11 road victory.
Alabama played about as well as we could have expected yesterday. AJ McCarron wasn’t spectacular, but he managed the game very well, completing 19 of his 31 pass attempts for 163 yards and a touchdown, and most importantly 0 turnovers. Alabama as a whole didn’t turn the ball over yesterday, while forcing three Penn State into three turnovers with the two Kirkpatrick forced fumble, and Mark Barron’s interception.
Alabama’s offensive line struggled in the first half, but seemed to wear down the Penn State defensive line as the game progressed. Trent Richardson registered his first 100-yard game of the season, as he was the workhorse back for the Crimson Tide on Saturday, carrying the ball 26 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns. Eddie Lacy was impressive running as well, going for 85 yards on 11 carries.
The receiving corp took a big hit before the game as it was announced that Duron Carter was still have issues with his transcript and wasn’t eligible to play. He didn’t travel with the team, and with Darius Hanks still sitting, Alabama’s receivers took a hit. Marquis Maze had 42 receiving yards on 4 catches, but was largely held in check by the Penn State secondary. Michael Williams had 3 receptions for 34 yards with the lone receiving touchdown. Kevin Norwood stepped up in Hanks’ and Carter’s absence, with his best game for the Tide as he had three catches. Kenny Bell and Brandon Gibson had a crucial catch apiece.
This group is going to get a huge lift next week against North Texas with the return of Darius Hanks, and the possibility of Duron Carter making his Alabama debut.
The Alabama special teams played very well in this game with excellent kick coverage despite Cade Foster’s short kickoffs. Also, Marquis Maze had an excellent punt return to flip the field in the third quarter. He fielded an Anthony Ferra punt at the 6, and promptly returned it 43 yards up to the 49.
Trey DePriest and Vinnie Sunseri continue to be monsters on special teams in kick coverage, and Sunseri opened up the big punt return by Maze with an excellent block to seal the edge.
Alabama’s defense still looks like potentially the best in the nation. They only sacked the Penn State QB’s one time, but they got pressure multiple times and batted down passes at the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide defense held Penn State to just 251 total yards of offense, with a large chunk of those yards coming on their first and last drives respectively. Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin combined for just 144 passing yards and completed only 12/39 attempts. Silas Redd and the Nittany Lion running game racked up only 107 yards on 30 carries for a 3.6 yards per carry average.
This Crimson Tide defense has the potential to be better than the 2009 version. They have speed and depth at every position, and if the Crimson Tide makes it to New Orleans, it’s going to be because the defense carried them well.
Alabama still has things to work on, but they’re going to just keep getting better each week. They’ll get a glorified tune-up in Tuscaloosa next week as they host North Texas, before the real season starts with Arkansas coming to Bryant-Denny to open up SEC play in two weeks.