It wasn’t terribly pretty on offense, but we will take it.
Alabama’s mature, elite defenders played to their typical level of excellence, affording their offensive counterparts some breathing room to work out the kinks with their freshman starting quarterback. Watching this game, it is hard to believe that Western Kentucky managed over 600 yards last week as QB Mike White was sacked three times and routinely had to throw under extreme duress, while the Hilltoppers ran for a whopping 23 yards on 22 carries.
Jonathan Allen put on a clinic in this one and looks to be the bellcow of the Alabama defense. He was seemingly in the backfield all afternoon. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson had several pressures as well. In pass coverage, Anthony Averett acquitted himself much better in this one, particularly in passing an early test as White targeted him with a deep ball to NFL prospect Taywan Taylor. Eddie Jackson returned an interception for a touchdown, redeeming himself for failing to recover a fumble caused by Marlon Humphrey after Taylor got loose on an early flea flicker. Speaking of Humphrey, he continues to look the part of a first-round NFL cornerback. It’s hard to find a weakness in his game.
Offensively, the Tide was once again a boom-or-bust outfit early, getting by on a couple of big plays but otherwise generally dysfunctional. There wasn’t any particular unit that was performing poorly - all had their moments - but every time it seemed that the Tide had something going they would drop a pass or end up behind the chains via negative play or penalty. The offensive line still has work to do on communication. Alphonse Taylor finished the game at RG after coming off the bench in the first quarter and seemed to improve things, though one still has to wonder if Bradley Bozeman is in over his skis as the starting center. The interior of the line had too many lapses, and one drive was killed when Bozeman snapped the ball over the head of Blake Barnett. It’s hard to believe that Bozeman would supplant Ross Pierschbacher after last season. This will be something to watch going forward.
As the game went along and the Western Kentucky defense started to succumb to the humidity and Alabama’s commanding lead in time of possession, Jalen Hurts settled in and ended up producing solid numbers, completing 23 of 36 for 287 yards and two scores. Most importantly, he made no obvious mistakes as Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin seemed to want to work on the pocket passing game with him. Jalen is clearly the guy at this point, which probably means a different style of offense than the one Alabama fans have come accustomed to. With Hurts and hyper-quick Damien Harris in the backfield, RPOs featuring a read option such as IZR paired with smoke and bubble screens are going to be a staple. When defenses start engaging ten guys near the box to flood those, look for rolling pockets to utilize Jalen’s ability to throw on the run and improvise as we saw against USC. This is likely to be a quick-strike offense vs. a grind-it-out offense, though the 50% conversion rate on third down today is encouraging and suggests that the Tide might have some versatility.
The running game is certainly a concern. When defenses are asked to pick their poison, they will normally choose to take away the run game when a young quarterback is at the helm. Until Alabama shows the ability to light it up down the field consistently, running the football is going to be challenging. Even the quick passing game is difficult when the safeties are flying up with abandon at the first sight of run action. Alabama managed a few explosive plays in the passing game, but there were far more to be had. Jalen’s accuracy was a bit shaky at times, particularly on deep throws that he underthrew too often, and Gehrig Dieter and O.J. Howard had a bad drop apiece. The good news as that there were plenty of open receivers, which should bode well as the offense hits its stride.
Saban was most perturbed with what he called a lack of respect for the opponent. The Tide did play a rather sloppy game, tallying twelve penalties for 84 yards including several of the dreaded pre-snap variety. He decried a poor week of practice and suggested that the team must do better against the SEC schedule, even saying that he was embarrassed by the performance despite winning by 28 points. That is Saban in a nutshell, concerned far less with results than the process.
Aesthetics aside, the Tide got it done to set up the showdown with Ole Miss that looks to be the key game in the SEC West this season. The defense should be ready for the Rebels; hopefully the offense will work out the kinks and follow suit.