At last, a relatively easy win — though it was 10-7 midway through the second quarter and still only 20-7 until late in the third. And it was only Louisiana-Monroe. Sure, they won the Sun Belt last year, but it’s the Sun Belt. Sure, they gave Kansas a scare, but Kansas is no good. ULM had maybe 50 players in uniform.
Bama was a little choppy early on, going three-and-out on two of their first three possessions and fumbling on the fourth. But in the second possession, they went eighty yards, Le’Ron McClain scoring from 17 out on a screen pass. On their fifth, they went three-and-out again but had taken over on the ULM 24 (on a disputed fumble; ULM challenged, and I’m guessing they were right but replays were inconclusive) and kicked a fieldgoal.
ULM had one good drive on the day, and it came right after the fieldgoal, going 83 yards for a touchdown on draw plays and shovel-passes, the same stuff Hawaii did so well. Alabama answered that with a six-play, 65-yard drive to make it 17-7, Keith Brown catching a 33-yard pass and running 20 on a reverse. And the defense responded by finally stopping those little gimmick plays.
Bama missed a fieldgoal after a rare mental error by John Parker Wilson (who threw a pass after crossing the line of scrimmage) on the next drive, and took over in the second half with a long drive for a fieldgoal and a slip-screen to DJ Hall that went for 43 and broke the game open. The reserves added two touchdowns, both by Roy Upchurch, who finally got to run the ball.
Ken Darby finally had a good game, running for over 80 yards on 14 carries, Brown continued to shine, and the defense stepped up after a sloppy second quarter.
But the story of the game was afterward. Rumors had been swirling the last couple of days that three players — star LB Juwan Simpson, #2 RB Jimmy Johns, and nickelback/third CB Lionel Mitchell — had been suspended. Shula never announces this stuff beforehand, but it turns out to have been the case — as I was sure of on the opening kickoff when Upchurch took Johns’ spot as the up-man.
But after the game, Shula announced that Simpson and the other two had been suspended for actions during the offseason, and that the suspensions had been delayed until other suspensions had been served so that the team wouldn’t be shorthanded in the opener. Now, Simpson got a lot of attention for an arrest in Bessemer for gun and marijuana possession; these charges were later largely dropped except for a misdemeanor charge.
Simpson, who was Academic All-SEC last year and has already earned his degree, has a reputation as a model citizen, and my understanding from people who know people is that while he was technically guilty the gun and the pot both belonged to someone else and that if anything he was trying to clean up someone else’s mess. At the same time, you pretty much have to suspend him.
Now, I am guessing that Shula is being perfectly honest, and at least two players (Hall in the first game, and Kyle Tatum in the second) did serve suspensions. But what it looks like is that Shula waited to suspend two key defensive players, including his best player, until after two possibly losable games (I think we would have lost to Hawaii if Simpson hadn’t played, and Mitchell made several good plays including an interception on the last play in that game) and waited until the ULM game that his second string probably could have won.
The media’s going to cream him.