Second Game Is Improvement Time

As long as there have been football seasons, there have been coaches and pundits reminding that a team makes its greatest improvement from the first game to the second game. Alabama Coach Nick Saban has a handful—probably a double handful—of things he expects to be better this week than last week.

But Alabama isn't the only team that will be playing its second game of the 2010 season in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday. Penn State also will be planning to make big improvement. And owing to how long he has been coach of the Nittany Lions, Penn State's Joe Paterno has probably uttered that "second game" thing as much as any coach.

Two of the marquee names in college football meet in Tuscaloosa at 6 p.m. CDT Saturday in a game that will be nationally televised by ESPN. Last week, Alabama was ranked first in the nation, and nothing happened in the opening week of college football that will change that rating. The Nittany Lions were ranked 19th by the Associated Press and 14th in the Coaches Poll, and Penn State should be at least that high in this week's polls.

Alabama is coming off a 48-3 victory over San Jose State, and Penn State won 44-14 over Youngstown State. Those are the typical college football openers that don't reveal a complete story of strengths and weaknesses.

Alabama was very good in its win, particularly when considering that two of its best players were on the sidelines. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that either tailback Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, or defensive end Marcell Dareus will be available this week. Ingram, the most valuable offensive player in last season's BCS National Championship Game, missed the opening game with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. Dareus, the defensive MVP of the BCS National Championship Game, has to miss one more game of an NCAA-mandated two-game suspension for accepting improper benefits from an agent.

There may be some slight chance that Ingram is healing fast enough for him to play this week. Less likely is that Alabama's appeal of the Dareus second game suspension will be granted.

Alabama's minuses in the win over San Jose State were minimal. The offense, particularly, was impressive, but it also had the biggest blunder.

Saban made much of Eddie Lacy's fumble at the goalline as Alabama was attempting to increase its lead from 14-3 late in the first quarter. Not only was the fumble, which gave the ball over to SJSU at its 20 after a touchback, "not winning football," Saban also revealed that Lacy didn't take the right steps or make the right cut on the same play.

Maybe Lacy has been concentrating too much on those other running plays, like the 37-yard touchdown burst in the third quarter that made the score Alabama 38, San Jose 3. Or the 10-yard slip through the middle of the line, punctuated with a tackle demolition at the goalline, to make it 48-3 with over 14 minutes to play in the game. Lacy made some amends,presumably, by rushing 13 times for 111 yards in his first college game.

Fortunately, Bama wasn't having to rely on Lacy with Ingram out. Trent Richardson, a pre-season All-Southeastern Conference candidate, started the game and was just fine with 10 carries for 66 yards and two touchdowns, including a 39-yard run.

Saban also pointed out that starting quarterback Greg McElroy threw into coverage in trying to complete a long pass to Julio Jones. McElroy could have thrown to an open receiver who was not as far downfield. Don't look for McElroy to suffer a demotion, though, after completing 13 of 15 passes (his other incompletion was a drop) for 218 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown pass to Marquis Maze.

Most of the defensive problems came on San Jose State's opening drive. The Spartans got a 32-yard run from their tailback, Tuscaloosa native Brandon Rutley, and a 15-yard penalty was tacked on to the run, leading to SJSU's only points of the game, a 31-yard field goal.

Four years ago when Saban was starting out as Alabama's coach, the Crimson Tide opened the season with a 52-6 win over Western Carolina. In that game, starting players went much of the way, and for good reason. The quarterback, John Parker Wilson, and his teammates were learning a new system and needed all the reps they could get.

This year, Saban was able to rest the majority of his offensive players and get a look at back-up performers. Most of those on Bama's offense have been in the system for two or three years. The exceptions, left guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker, played a few more series with the second offense. Fluker injured an ankle and came out a couple of series after the rest of the first offense and Warmack soon followed him to the bench.

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