Well, that was weird.
In a game that checked just about every box on the stat sheet, Alabama managed to survive the hijinks in Oxford to hang on for a draining 48-43 victory. It was the first time that the team was tested behind its freshman QB, and it was predictably trying at times.
The offensive line actually looked great in the run game this week, opening holes consistently for Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs, who combined for 177 yards on 19 carries with each looking comfortable with Hurts at the mesh point on read option plays. One has to figure that the reported drill work on the mesh is having an impact on a running back rotation that is tough to figure right now. Harris is clearly the starter, but Jacobs was running second this week after failing to register any stats last week, and B.J. Emmons was nowhere to be found after getting some extensive time against Western Kentucky. It does appear that Bo Scarbrough will be the designated short yardage guy and late game hammer, though fumbling the football with a minute to go in a one possession game won’t win him any favors.
The pass protection was solid for the most part, though there were a couple of breakdowns in communication including one that led to a sack-fumble that was returned for a touchdown. At that point Alabama was down 24-3 on the road, with a true freshman at QB who had been horribly unproductive and even had the ball slip out of his hands for an unforced fumble. Nearing the end of the first half, Alabama had handed the ball to Harris and Jacobs a total of nine times despite the two of them combining for seven yards a carry, yet had thrown the ball 26 times despite an average of four yards per pass. It wasn’t all on RPOs either, as several came from empty sets where Lane Kiffin was obviously trying to exploit what should have been a physical mismatch on the outside. To their credit, the Ole Miss defensive backs managed to run around blocks consistently and tackled well.
To be sure, the passing game left a lot to be desired at a whopping 5.1 yards per completion. Jalen Hurts was very accurate on the shorter throws, but the deep balls were downright awful in this one. Ridley made a wonderful play, twisting to haul in an underthrown ball over the wrong shoulder, for the only long pass completion. In a rare moment of lucidity, Gary Danielson pointed out that elite college receivers will outrun passes that would have been overthrows in high school. The issue on those throws appears to be a combination of waiting too long to release and failing to use his lower body to drive the football. Jalen definitely has plenty of work to do in this area.
After the sack-fumble, one had to wonder how the young Hurts would respond. Fortunately, he showed the resolve and poise beyond his years for which he is quickly becoming known, willing the football down the field while converting a couple of first downs with his legs to change the momentum. In the end, Jalen rushed for almost an many yards as he passed for, averaging a robust 8.1 yards on his 18 carries and adding an element to the Alabama offense that we haven’t seen. With all of these weapons outside, there is likely to be plenty of room for Hurts to roam as teams commit extra guys in coverage. Still, a winning QB has to be willing and able to throw the ball through zones rather than taking off all the time. This is something that Jalen will simply have learn on the job.
Defensively, Alabama was able to make life tough on Chad Kelly for much of the day, but he still managed to show his NFL pedigree in making enough explosive plays to put up over 400 yards through the air. Kelly is elite, folks, and I for one will be glad to see him go. Ronnie Harrison got caught staring into the backfield on a long second quarter touchdown pass, harkening back to the POP pass in 2015 where Marlon Humphrey left his man open for an easy score. Anthony Averett held his own again, giving up only one big play that I can remember. The pass rush was excellent, even when rushing four against six blockers., though Kelly was able to use his athleticism to extend plays. The greatest moment of the game was Jonathan Allen’s pick six where he showed off amazing speed for a 290-lb. defensive lineman.
The Ole Miss run game was effectively stuffed. Pruitt was able to get good minutes out of Dakota Ball and Josh Frazier, allowing The Big Four on the defensive line to get some rest. The linebackers really showed off their speed when Ole Miss tried to get to the edges, something that they had done well in the 2014 and 2015 wins. There was nothing to be had out there on this day, however, as Alabama’s faster linebackers consistently managed to chase down the ball-carriers.
Special teams were a mixed bag. The good: Griffith’s kick-offs, the kick-off coverage, the extra points, all of J.K. Scott’s punts except for one, and an Eddie Jackson punt return for touchdown that in the end was absolutely vital to the victory. The bad news is that Griffith also missed a field goal, Scott shanked a punt for eight yards, and the hands team allowed an onside kick to be recovered on the Tide 37-yard line, leading to the secondary promptly giving up a one play TD drive.
There were still far too many mental errors, Harrison’s coverage bust chief among them. Cam Robinson has morphed into a walking false start in his junior season. Not sure what is going on with him. Ryan Anderson was called for a cheap but correct roughing the passer on a play where he very clearly had time to stop. The combination of a freshman RT and QB reared its ugly head on the sack-fumble, as neither Jonah Williams nor Hurts had any idea whatsoever that the corner was blitzing.
Injuries are a concern going forward as ArDarius Stewart and Minkah Fitzpatrick each left the game with apparent concussion symptoms. It will be surprising if either suits up next week against Kent State, and the schedule is favorable the following week as well with Kentucky coming to town. The next two weeks should present a great opportunity to work on some of the timing issues with the offense and rotate in the many young defensive backs on the roster.
In the end, Saban seemed more relieved than anything, rightfully giving Ole Miss and Chad Kelly credit for taking it to the Tide again. Not hard to figure out that he was primarily talking about Jalen Hurts when he praised the team for the way they kept competing after falling behind. Coming back from a 24-3 deficit, on the road, in a true freshman quarterback’s first conference game is unheard of. Until the meltdown at the end, the Tide had come off the deck to outscore the Rebels 45-6 and take a seemingly insurmountable 48-30 lead.
Hurts seemed to grow up before our eyes, and now Kiffin has two weeks to figure out a game plan for a tough three-game stretch that starts in Fayetteville on 10/8 against a Hogs team that will come out with something to prove, followed by the trip to Knoxville and ending with the Aggies in Tuscaloosa. If the offensive line builds on this performance and Hurts gets a bit better on the deep balls, this team has an opportunity to win every game on the schedule.