The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide hits the road for the first time in 2010, as they invade Durham this weekend for a non-conference showdown with the Duke Blue Devils.
The reigning national champions certainly looked like they are ready to successfully defend their crown, as they made light work of nationally-ranked Penn State last weekend in Tuscaloosa, 24-3. The win was the 26th straight regular season victory for Alabama, dating back to the 2008 season-opener against Clemson. Following this game, the Crimson Tide will begin SEC play next weekend at nationally-ranked Arkansas.
The Blue Devils are 1-1 on the young season and bring a lethal offensive unit into this game. After rolling up 45 points in a win over Elon in the season- opener, Dave Cutcliffe's squad dropped a heart-breaking 54-48 decision at Wake Forest last week in the ACC opener for Duke.
This game marks the fourth all-time meeting between these two teams, but Alabama's first trip to Durham. The Crimson Tide have won two of the previous three meetings, including a 30-14 decision in the last matchup in 2006 in Tuscaloosa.
The Crimson Tide have been without their Heisman Trophy winning running back for the first two games this year, but that hasn't mattered, as sophomore Trent Richardson has stepped up to the challenge, especially last week against Penn State, when he rushed for a career-high 144 yards. The Alabama ground game is netting 218.5 yards per game in the early going and will only get better considering that Mark Ingram is expected to be on the field in Durham.
While the Crimson Tide are running the ball down the opposition's throat, QB Greg McElroy is completing 72.5 percent of his passes. There are plenty of targets for McElroy to seek out downfield, including WRs Julio Jones (10 receptions, for 142 yards, one TD) and Marquis Maze (five receptions, one TD).
The offense isn't the only unit that is in mid-season form, as the Alabama defense has allowed just three points in both the season-opener against San Jose State and against the Nittany Lions last week. Opponents thus far are only averaging 229.0 yards per game of total offense, finding it hard to more the football both on the ground (108.0 ypg) and through the air (121.0 ypg).
Junior linebacker Jerrell Harris currently leads the way with 15 tackles over the first two games. Harris gets plenty of help in the LB corps from Dont'a Hightower (eight tackles). The secondary is chock-full of talent, highlighted by All-American candidate Mark Barron (nine tackles, one INT) at strong safety, although sophomore free safety Robert Lester (six tackles, one sack, two INTs, one fumble recovery) has really impressed. The defensive front should also get a boost in the arm this week, as standout end Marcell Dareus is set to return after serving a two-game suspension.
Despite the team's lopsided win over Penn State, Nick Saban believes there is obvious room for improvement.
"Right now the focus is the things that we didn't do well. We need to learn from that and get better from that. I think even though we made improvements on special teams, I still think we need more consistency. We have not made special teams an advantage for us in terms of the return game whether it be penalties or a lack of execution, that is an area that we need to improve on. We still need to clean up some mental errors on the defensive team and offensively we had a couple of critical penalties in the red area that probably affected our chances of scoring. We didn't convert a two-minute drive because of a sack. Things like that right before the half make a difference in the game.
The Blue Devils racked up 487 yards of offense last week and still fell in Winston-Salem to Wake Forest. Cutcliffe's team has had no trouble moving the football, especially through the air (354.0 ypg). However, quarterback Sean Renfree and company will be hard-pressed to match that production against the Crimson Tide this week. To his credit, Renfree has been superb in replacing one of the ACC top signal callers of all time (Thaddeus Lewis). Renfree has completed just over 71 percent of his passes thus far, for 708 yards, with six TDs. Connor Vernon (18 receptions, for 310 yards, two TDs) and Donovan Varner (13 receptions, for 174 yards and one TD) highlight the play on the outside.
The ground game is not just an afterthought in Durham, with tailback Desmond Scott pacing an attack that is averaging 160 yards per game. Scott is churning out 7.7 yards per carry and is averaging 99.5 yards per game, with two TDs.
While the offense put up huge numbers, the defense failed to prevent Wake Forest from doing the same. The Demon Deacons rolled up 500 yards of offense last week, including 229 on the ground. Shoring things up is a must if Duke is to even be competitive for a half this week.
The secondary has been called upon to make a lot of plays, as the top three tacklers on the team reside in the defensive backfield. Junior safety Matt Daniels paces the team with 15 stops, with two TFLs and one INT. Redshirt freshman CB Ross Cockrell and junior safety Lee Butler are next in line with 14 tackles apiece. The player to watch for up front is senior end Patrick Egboh (eight tackles), while senior Abraham Kromah (13 tackles, one INT) leads the way in the linebacking corps.