Yesterday marked the first leg of the SEC gauntlet as Alabama rolled into Fayetteville to play only the second truly dangerous team on what has been a subpar early season slate. Arkansas was expected to test the Tide with a very good passing game and a defense that had done just enough to have the Hogs sitting at 4-1 on their way to perhaps the best season of the Bielema era.
Consider the test passed.
This one was over before halftime with Bo Scarbrough essentially providing the death blow late in the second quarter, rumbling in from 21 yards out to stake the Tide to a 35-10 lead. The first-half offense was nothing short of unstoppable. Rolling up 396 yards in a half is something you do to home cupcakes, not top 25 conference opponents on the road. The Tide maintained a great run/pass balance and averaged just over ten yards per play on the night.
It all started up front. Lane Kiffin opened the game attacking the edges of the defense with a great deal of success on the first drive. The opening play, his favored jet-sweep-shovel-pass to Ridley, was successful and Damien Harris had a nice gainer on a stretch play before Joshua Jacobs came in and promptly gashed the Hogs on an inside zone for 56 yards. Unfortunately Jacobs suffered a freak hit on the shoulder two plays later, causing him to fumble the football and miss the rest of the game with a nerve issue. This was likely the same type of injury suffered by Colt McCoy in the 2009 title game.
While his action was extremely limited, Jacobs picked up right where he left off last week, showing great vision, agility, and burst. He is going to be a great one, folks, and should be back next week as Saban said he could have re-entered in the second half if needed. All Harris did was gain 122 yards on 13 carries plus another 60 on two receptions, and Bo Scarbrough added 56 yards on seven carries for good measure. Halfway through the season, this running back corps looks as deep and talented as it was projected to be, and if the offensive line performs as it did last night, it’s hard to imagine a defense anywhere that will hold up against them for four quarters. The Tide will need to have a talk about fumbles as they put the ball on the turf three times, losing two.
The passing game was outstanding as well, though as great as the numbers were, Jalen just missed on a couple of opportunities that could have made them even better. This was another Kiffin masterpiece as wide open receivers were running in the secondary for most of the evening, allowing Hurts to pile up 253 yards while throwing only 17 passes, completing 13 of them. The good news is that Jalen is reading defenses much better and looks comfortable firing the football over the middle. He still has much work to do on the deeper throws, however, as he underthrew Ridley badly on one and caused Miller Forristall to adjust on what should have been his first career touchdown since Arkansas’ defense hadn’t noticed him on the field. We still need to see Jalen process things a little faster, as timing is a major factor on those deeper balls. Still, it’s tough to complain about the line he put up.
Interestingly, Jalen had a rather poor night running the football. Based on the Arkansas strategy, they must have watched Hurts running all over Ole Miss on loop. Perhaps it was the early success stretching them out laterally that caused it, but it seemed that the Hogs were much more concerned about containing Jalen on the edges than stopping the running backs between the tackles. In the end, they kept Jalen from running on them but got themselves blown out. It was an odd approach, and one that I don’t think we will see much of going forward.
Defensively, it’s never good when the team gives up 400 yards passing, but it was about as empty a 400 yards as you will ever see. The entire second half was essentially garbage time, and the secondary played like it. Saban was and should be displeased with a group that failed to execute far too often and allowed the Hogs to maintain a glimmer of hope for a comeback. Following Bo’s first-half score, Eddie Jackson lost his mind a bit, taking a horribly ill-advised chance on an interception that led to a 57-yard catch-and-run on a play he should have easily been able to contest. It was simply an inexcusable error for a senior safety with under a minute left in the half, and led to the first of two impressive touchdown grabs by Arkansas WR Keon Hatcher, who showed an impressive knack for high-pointing the football with great hops and hands.
Make no mistake, Austin Allen is a very good quarterback, and he’s as tough as his brother Brandon was. That young man was knocked around all night, causing him to turn the ball over four times in between completed passes. On some level, this is the mark of the modern game. Targeting rules have eliminated much of the fear of going over the middle, rules governing pass rushers like the one that was incorrectly applied against Rashaan Evans have taken some of the aggressiveness from the edge guys, and modern spread offenses create confusion and get guys open against man coverage. Having elite talent in the secondary will not prevent outstanding QBs from getting yards and even some points, but it will often result in turnovers and big plays on the subsequent returns. We saw this in action last night as Minkah Fitzpatrick, cleverly coined by a reader in the game thread “Sixhattrick,” picked off three and returned one for a score. Tim Williams scooped up an Allen fumble and took it to the house as well, giving the Tide nine non-offensive TDs on the season.
Unfortunately, the Tide didn’t escape this one unscathed in terms of injury. While Jacobs should be good to go, both Reuben Foster and Shank Taylor left the game with concussions. Needless to say, that’s a bad word to hear in this day and age, and Alabama will undoubtedly be careful with both players as they should be. Hopefully they will show no ill effects during the week and be ready to go. If they can’t go, Tide fans can take solace in the fact that we have highly capable backups in Rashaan Evans and Lester Cotton.
Next week the Tide will roll into Knoxville to take on a banged-up Tennessee squad that is coming off what had to be a draining loss in College Station. They are probably catching the Vols at a good time, but it certainly won’t be easy. Get healed up, work on some of the communication issues in the secondary, and take care of business.