After the past few weeks, coinciding with the loss of quarterback Brodie Croyle to season-ending knee injury, some would say that Alabama having an effective passing game doesn't have a snowball's chance in Hell. Dave Rader doesn't see it that way.
This week Alabama will be playing 11th-ranked Tennessee in Knoxville. Bama, 5-2 overall and 2-2 in Southeastern Conference games, would be considered a heavy underdog against the Volunteers, 5-1 overall and 3-1 in SEC play with wins over Florida and Georgia and the only loss coming at the hands of third-ranked Auburn. Kickoff Saturday will be at 3:30 EDT (2:30 central time) with television coverage by CBS.
When Croyle went out two-and-a-half games into the season, he had completed 44 of 66 passes, 66.7 per cent, with six touchdowns and no interceptions for 534 yards. And Alabama was 3-0 in games Croyle started. Since then, Alabama has used first Marc Guillon (20-43, 46.5 per cent, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 191 yards, 0-2 record as a starter) and lately Spencer Pennington ( 13-28, 46.4 per cent, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 2-0 record).
Pennington, a 6-4, 230-pound junior, will be the starter in Knoxville Saturday. Guillon, 6-3, 212, soph, won the back-up job to Croyle in fall camp and replaced Croyle as the starter, but has missed the last two games with a back problem. Bama Head Coach Mike Shula said Guillon is still limited, but that he could have played the past two weeks "if necessary" and will be available Saturday.
In Pennington's first start of the season, at Kentucky, he completed seven-of-11 passes, but for only 83 yards. Bama rushed 63 times for 304 yards and five touchdowns in that 45-17 win over the Wildcats in Lexington. Last week Pennington passed only nine times and completed only four for only 72 yards. Half that yardage total came on an acrobatic catch for a 35-yard gain by Tyrone Prothro. Pennington did throw for a touchdown, but it was on a shovel pass, closer cousin to a draw play than to a traditional pass.
Rader said that he thinks that Alabama is "going to need to pass more against Tennessee. Spencer is progressing on the mental side. He's always had a strong arm. Now he's tying it all together."
At Fayette County High School, Pennington operated out of a spread (shotgun) formation and passed for over 6,300 yards in three years, including over 2,400 as a senior.
It's more than just throwing the football. "We have to have completions," Rader said. "We've just missed on some big plays. We need to hit one and get that snowball effect."
The Tide coach admitted he was surprised at Pennington's poor completion rate against Southern Miss. "He's always higher than that in practice, and I expect him to be over 50 per cent on completions Saturday," Rader said.
Pennington said, "We talk about eliminating ‘close' and we need to do that in the passing game this week. They say it's a game of inches and we've had some close misses. We've been looking good in practice, but we haven't clicked in the past couple of games."
Rader said he is not bothered when he is asked if Alabama should not throw more passes and if Pennington is ready to play. "Those are legitimate questions," the coach said. "It would help our team if we would complete more passes."
Rader said the Tide receivers have had a great attitude during this down time of pass completions. "I promised them we are going to throw to them more," Rader said. "They say it doesn't matter, that they want to be known as the best blocking wide receivers in the SEC. They say whatever it takes. They like this winning things."
Shula said that while Kentucky can't be compared to Tennessee, Pennington's trip to Lexington will be a help for the Bama quarterback this week. "Anytime you go on the road and win, it helps. And it will help that he has had good practices over the past couple of weeks."
Pennington said he is excited to be the starting quarterback going to Tennessee, but that he also realizes he has big shoes to fill in replacing Croyle. "We need to have a good week of practice," he said. "When we get there, my job will be to keep the offense on the field and score points."
Pennington said he feels more comfortable than he did a year ago when he went into a big stadium at Georgia. "There's no substitute for experience," he said. "I'll take what I learned from that game at Georgia and the game at Kentucky this year and do what I can."
He said being the starter means "more time in the film room and more time by myself studying the game plan. It's hard work."
Pennington is aware of what to expect in Neyland Stadium Saturday. "I was there two years ago when we won (34-14)," he said.
Pennington said he expects the Vols to "key on our running game. We'll work on our passing in practice. We're going to have to run good routes and put the ball on the money. We've got to get the ball into the hands of the play-makers."
The Tide quarterback said a strength of the team is "No one is worried about statistics. Everyone on the team is unselfish. It's a team sport and we just want to win. The receivers want to do whatever it takes to win, whether that is running good routes or blocking downfield. I don't worry about passing yards if Kenneth Darby is going to run for 197 yards. If he can do that, there's no reason to throw it. You don't change a winning formula."
And he thinks if Tennessee commits enough defenders to stop the run, "Then we'll pass it well. If it comes down this week to me passing the ball, that's exciting. But it goes back to whatever it takes to win."
Pennington was handicapped last season with an injury to his right (throwing) shoulder. He had surgery after the 2003 season and, like Croyle, missed contact team work in spring practice. Guillon got most of the work in the spring. Last week Pennington took a hard shot on his shoulder right after releasing a long pass.
"That was the first hit on the shoulder," Pennington said. "It didn't bother me, and that is an additional confidence-booster."