By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
That old adage certainly rang true Saturday in the University of Alabama’s home and season opener against Kent State as the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide was able to lean on a stout defensive effort and three rushing touchdowns by Trent Richardson en route to a 48-7 victory over the Golden Flashes.
Despite playing their first game without Greg McElroy, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Marcel Dareus, among others, the Crimson Tide showed the main phases of their team — game-managing quarterback play, strong rushing attack, deep threat receivers and an unrelenting defense — are still intact.
That doesn’t mean Alabama didn’t struggle on its way to the win, though.
Going into the game, coach Nick Saban said both AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims would get significant playing time at quarterback.
Although he didn’t appear polished at all times, McCarron, a sophomore, turned out to be more productive than his counterpart, racking up 226 passing yards and a touchdown on 23 attempts. He also had two interceptions, but the second came after his receiver had the ball bounce off his hands and into the arms of Kent State’s Leon Green.
On the other end, Sims could not seem to get anything going when he was on the field. He was sacked twice, missed multiple throws and had two of his passes picked — one of which was returned to the Bama 3-yd line, leading Kent State to its lone score. The redshirt freshman ended the game with 73 yards on seven completed passes.
After seeing both young quarterbacks in action, Saban admitted McCarron was more poised, but he also liked what he saw from Sims.
He said: “We have a lot of confidence in Phillip, and in most cases, he plays extremely well. I think he learned a lot out there today, and I think he will be a very good player for us here.”
With Jones now playing at wide out for the Atlanta Falcons, many Tide fans have wondered who would step up as Alabama’s go-to receiver, and in the first game at least, Marquis Maze was up to the task.
In addition to pulling down a 24-yard touchdown pass from McCarron nearly midway through the first quarter, the speedster also served as a threat in the return game, almost breaking the Golden Flashes’ first punt. Instead, he was tackled at the Kent State 36.
One hundred eighteen receiving yards on eight catches, as well as 120 return yards weren’t enough to keep the speedy receiver happy. Following the game, he admitted he was still mad at himself for muffing a punt and dropping a third-and-10 pass.
With the short field, the Tide were able to go to work and capped off their first drive with a 1-yard touchdown run from Richardson. The score marked the second season in a row the junior scored Alabama’s first touchdown.
Now out of Ingram’s shadow, Richardson will look to anchor the Crimson Tides’ rushing attack. Even though he had three touchdowns, his 37 yards were bested by fellow running backs Jalston Fowler and Eddie Lacy. Early in the fourth, 63 of Fowler’s 69 rushing yards came on a two-play drive that ended on a lengthy 49-yard run. Lacy also contributed 58 rushing yards and a touchdown of his own.
Saban acknowledged that Richardson, a frequent mixture in Heisman discussions, wasn’t presented with a lot of opportunities, but the star running back wasn’t too worried considering his teammates’ success on the ground.
“Our coach is going to put us in the best position,” Richardson said. “I don’t care who gets it.”
There have been lofty expectations for the defense heading into the season, and it didn’t disappoint. The Tide D was able to hold Kent State to 23 yards in the first half and 90 by game’s end.
Key defenders like Donta Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and Mark Barron flew around the backfield, keeping the Golden Flashes from advancing on most drives. Hightower played a part in seven tackles, as did Upshaw, but Trey Depriest led the way for Alabama with 10.
With the opening day win under their belt, the Crimson Tide will now hit the road to face Penn State next week.
Saban was pleased with his defense in the Kent State contest, but he said he will save a more concrete opinion for after next Saturday.
“They (Penn State) are going to be a better team this year, and they are going to play better at their place,” Saban said. “I’ll tell you next week how good our defense is.”
Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.