Stop me if you have heard this before.
Alabama's defense overcame putrid special teams play and an uneven offensive performance, overwhelming the Texas A&M offense on the way to a comfortable 41-23 victory in College Station. The Aggies came in averaging 453 yards of offense, including 162 on the ground. Against Alabama they rushed for a pathetic 32 of their 312 total yards. Indeed, the Alabama defense executed the prescribed plan to perfection: they made the Aggies one-dimensional, then trapped QB Kyle Allen in a collapsing pocket, making it impossible to see downfield clearly. The result was three interceptions plus a fourth from true freshman Kyler Murray that was simply an awful read and throw. That one was on Kevin Sumlin, as Murray has shown nothing to date that would suggest that he is ready to be a capable passer in the SEC.
There honestly aren't enough superlatives to describe this defense. Big? Yep, the biggest starting LBs in the nation and the ability to deploy three 300-pounders across the line when needed, plus a bunch of DBs that are more than six feet in stature. Fast? Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster had no trouble chasing down Tra Carson and Kyle Allen on the edges, CB Marlon Humphrey is a track star, OLBs Rashaan Evans and Ryan Anderson are a couple of the fastest OLBs in the country, and CB Minkah Fitzpatrick looked like Javier Arenas while taking both of his picks to the house. The only weakness for this defense early in the season was a tendency for the safeties to run late in rotation, but that may have been a bit of uncertainty while adjusting to Mel Tucker's pick-happy system and doesn't appear to be a problem at this point with Eddie Jackson picking off four passes in the past three contests. We said in the off-season that Tucker would be the biggest recruit in the 2015 class if he was able to deliver on his turnover promises. Based on the last three games, I think it's safe to say that has come to fruition. Pass against this group at your own risk.
How dominant was this performance? Texas A&M breached the Alabama red zone only twice, coming away with ten points, and one of those came on a long pass on the heels of a fumbled punt return that gave the Aggies the ball in Alabama territory. Outside of those two trips, the Aggies were relegated to 50-plus yard field goal attempts when they weren't turning the ball over or being snuffed out entirely. This game proved what many of us have been saying all along about the narrative regarding Nick Saban and HUNH spread offenses - the problem hasn't been understanding how to beat it as much as having the horses in the secondary to execute it. The Kryptonite for a spread offense is a defense that can stuff the run and collapse the pocket without having to blitz or walk up a safety, with CBs who are good enough to play man-under and take away short throws. For the past few recruiting classes, Saban has committed to a versatile defense that can stop both heavy run teams as well as fast spread teams. This year's team is the culmination of those efforts, and it is a sight to behold.
Offensively, Alabama was able to get out to a fast start with the running game. Derrick Henry was a monster in this one, finishing with a robust 236 yards on 32 carries. The only concern there is the number of carries. Kenyan Drake was largely ineffective in the game, and it's hard to put a finger on the cause. Still, we have two five-star freshmen on the bench in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. Saban hasn't shied away from giving carries to these types in previous seasons. That neither can seem to garner any meaningful action has to be somewhat concerning. Henry is a beast, but he can't shoulder the entire load for what is sure to be a run-first offense the rest of the way. Based on the workload, it should surprise no one that Derrick was the first of several Tide players to succumb to the Texas heat and humidity via leg cramps.
The passing game was limited again in this one, as a capable Texas A&M secondary was able to limit WR Calvin Ridley to only one big play, a pretty over-the-shoulder catch of a well thrown pass to the sideline in the second half. Nothing about the passing game looked terribly impressive. Jake Coker did complete 68 percent, but managed only 138 yards on 25 attempts. What Jake did not do this week was force the football. With the defense playing like it is, the most important thing the offense can do is protect the ball, and they did that. Jake pulled it down and took off a few times in the second half rather than heave it into the secondary under pressure, and once again looked quite capable when doing so. Some are concerned about his physical style leading to injury, but the runners who are dishing out the harm rarely get hurt. You can bet that it fires up an offense when the quarterback trucks a safety to finish a run.
The biggest concern on offense was the departure of C Ryan Kelly, who left with potential concussion symptoms. There was certainly a change on the interior of the line when talented-but-raw freshman JC Hassenauer was forced into action. Kelly is the unquestioned leader and signal-caller on the line, so this is certainly something to watch going forward. Saban said after the game that he should be fine. Hope for the best. Outside of Kelly, the Tide seemingly emerged healthy once again.
Lastly, we have the special teams. The good news is that Adam Griffith had a wonderful game, making all of his field goal attempts and managing several touchbacks on kick-offs. The bad news? A blocked punt, the aforementioned fumbled return by Cyrus Jones, a surrendered punt return TD by amazing freshman Christian Kirk, and a correctly called targeting foul on Shaun Dion Hamilton during a return. This once again led to criticism of coordinator Bobby Williams, and this week some of it is warranted. While fumbles, hitting people in the head, and missed kicks are basic football fundamentals, kick coverage and protecting the punter are absolutely functions of the special teams coach. This game was a train wreck for Bobby, and I feel certain that some time will be spent on special teams this week.
Once again, the Tide survived and advanced. They now move on to face a Tennessee squad that should be overmatched but will undoubtedly come in with a chip on its shoulder in effort to end the Tide's eight-year winning streak. The
third fourth Saturday in October will mark the end of a brutal October stretch, and a win would set the Tide up for a potential championship run in November. The game play isn't always pretty, but recent outcomes have been beautiful. Let's hope it continues.