It’s been a long seven months since Alabama beat Clemson to win the national championship. Over that time, we’ve spent our time at arms with one another over a myriad of different suspected issues surrounding the Crimson Tide: Who will be the quarterback? How will Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson be replaced? Can Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris fill in for the since-departed Heisman winner, Derrick Henry? Who will be the third cornerback? Will the team be able to develop any depth in the secondary? Who, again, will be the starting quarterback?
With a herculean effort, the Crimson Tide did their best to answer most of those questions.
Southern California entered the game with the passion of an angry bull. Without a moment of hesitation, the green quarterback, Max Browne, attacked the Tide’s only inexperienced player on defense, Anthony Averett, with a a 36 yard deep strike. Reuben Foster and the rest of the defense promptly rallied and kept the Trojans from advancing any further, forcing a field goal.
Answering the biggest question of the offseason, Blake Barnett, the talented Californian, started the game at quarterback for the Crimson Tide. With the Trojans attacking at full force, Barnett seemed about as poised as a 15 year-old boy on a first date.
On the third drive, true freshman Jalen Hurts entered the game. The question of whether to be excited or terrified at a true freshman entering such a high stakes game left even the most ardent of Crimson Tide fans twisting in consternation. Then everyone’s worst fears came to life. On his very first play, Hurts and Damien Harris played a game of tug-of-war over a read option hand off that each man thought he was supposed to keep. The ball, like the child of fighting parents, decided that it cared not for being around either one and instead fell into the welcoming embrace of USC’s Cameron Smith.
Fortunately, while the offense floundered with so many new faces, the veteran defense encircled the Southern Cal offense like a horde of pre-teen girls at a One Direction concert. The vaunted pass rush was less of a football unit, and more of a relentless race between Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson to see who could reach the quarterback first.
Finally, on Jalen Hurts’ third drive as Alabama’s quarterback, he sprinted out to the right on a designed rollout. In one decisive and fluid movement, Hurts set his feet and launched a 36 yard laser beam to a streaking ArDarius Stewart, who had fought through a
mugging press coverage to slip behind the defense and cradled the ball into his loving hands for the first touchdown of the game.
One drive later, Damien Harris got in on the action with a hop-step in the backfield reminiscent Mark Ingram and burst down the field for a 46 yard gain. With every Alabama fan in the world crossing their fingers and holding their breath, Adam Griffith capped off the drive with his first field goal of 2016.
Two plays later, Reuben Foster struck the fear of God into a receiver running a crossing route, who decided that letting the ball bounce harmlessly off of his hands was a much safer idea for his health than letting Foster separate his soul from his body. Yet instead of living to play another down, cornerback Marlon Humphrey tracked the errant ball and snagged it from the air, then weaved his way through the chaos to a quick defensive touchdown before anyone in the stadium could tweet “Roll Tide,” and Alabama entered the half with a 17-3 lead.
On the third play of the second half, USC erroneously decided to blitz the entire right side of their defense. ArDarius Stewart, realizing that there was about 70 yards of green with no defenders in front of him, turned in time to see that Jalen Hurts had just realized the same thing. The two played pitch-and-catch as easily as a father and son at a family picnic, and Stewart trotted 71 yards for the easy score. This little stick of dynamite broke the dam, and the Tide surged the rest of the game.
On the other hand, the Trojans completely deflated after that first drive of the second half, and everything that could go wrong for them, went wrong. Jalen Hurts scored a couple of rushing touchdowns on designed runs, and then Blake Barnett, the original starter, came back into the game and threw a few dimes, including a gorgeous 45 yard rocket to graduate transfer, Gehrig Dieter.
During shaky start by the young offense, the Tide’s defense looked every bit as dangerous as it was last year, if not more so. The ridiculous pass rush, soul-eating linebackers, and blanketing secondary coverage gave the offense time to to settle itself around Jalen Hurts. Once the offense started clicking, the game went from a tight 0-3 matchup to Alabama suddenly winning the game 52-6.
- With two turnovers (one being a very bad decision), Jalen Hurts was far from perfect. He made a couple of really nice throws, but we saw almost nothing in the intermediate passing game. However, his poise and collectedness while leading the offense into a rhythm seemed to win the team over more than his arm ever could.
- At the same time, after his initial deer-in-the-headlights impression, Barnett looked sharp and showed his amazing arm talent after he came back into the game. Hurts will probably get the nod next week, but I would think that Barnett is still squarely in the race with him to be Alabama’s QB.
- Damien Harris had a few good runs and busted off two really long ones with some nice moves. All said, he totaled 138 yard on only 9 carries. Right now, it looks like he has the edge over Bo Scarbrough. However, Scarbrough had a decent night fighting a war in the trenches. He plowed his way through defensive linemen to 36 well-earned yards of his own. I’d expect to see an even split between the two going forward. Freshman Josh Jacobs looked sharp as well.
- ArDarius Stewart got open a couple of times, and O.J. Howard and Gehrig Dieter each had a long catch. But all in all the receivers did not get much action. Hurts and Barnett only attempted 17 passes between the two of them all game. With young quarterbacks, the small workload is understandable. I would expect the passing will increase as they grow more comfortable in game time.
- The revamped offensive line was probably the shakiest position group of the game. It had it’s moments, but more often than not the running backs struggled to get more than a yard or two on any given play. Considering only Cam Robinson is starting in the same position as last year, that kind of discombobulation in the season opener is to be expected.
- I can’t say enough about that pass rush. Though I don’t see any official stats yet, I think they ended up with four sacks on the night. Jonathan Allen was a monster all night, as was Ryan Anderson. Tim Williams never quite got a sack, but was constantly harassing and disrupting the pocket the entire game. As good as the pass rush was in 2015, it might be even better this year.
- Perhaps even more impressive were the linebackers. Reuben Foster brought thunderous wrath upon any ball carrier. His lighter playing weight made him look as fast as any running back, and his hits didn’t seem to lose one bit of force. Shaun Hamilton quietly played exceptionally too. He seemed to have gained a step in the speed department in the offseason as he chased plays from sideline to sideline, rather than just filling gaps at the line of scrimmage.
- Marlon Humphrey blanketed the All-American, JuJu Smith-Schuster all night. On top of his outstanding coverage and his pick six, he made two bone-jarring tackles in run support that looked like a linebacker tackling at first glance.
- Minkah Fitzpatrick also played exceptionally, breaking up three passes to my count. The third corner, Anthony Averett, was picked on early with the deep pass. He was singled out again on another bomb, but fortunately the receiver dropped the catch. It was not the most memorable night for the junior, but he did do a great job with his tackling.
- Eddie Jackson was rarely tested and therefore rarely seen all night, but he did manage to run down the USC running back from behind just before the back broke out for a long touchdown. Ronnie Harrison played with his head on fire in the first half, almost getting in three different fights. Near the end, he and Jackson got in a heated argument... One that ended when the terrifying Reuben Foster grabbed Harrison by the shoulders and told him to settle down.
- JK Scott looks like he should go pro after this year. He is one special punter. It was almost a shame that the Tide didn’t get to use him the entire second half....
- This team still has a ways to go to find an offensive identity. It seems they are content with being power spread offense at the moment, with a focus on running Scarbrough, Harris, and the quarterback while only throwing when they have to. I think that as time goes on and Hurts/Barnett get more experience, the focus will shift more to a quick-to-intermediate passing game.
- Again, this just might be a special defense. I’m not sure I have ever seen a college defense able to move that fast and hit that hard. I was honestly almost disappointed every time they had to come off the field.
This was a huge win against an exceptionally talented team. Many said that USC had the best offensive line and that Alabama will face this season, and Jonathan Allen and co. had their way with them all night. We can celebrate this win for a day, but Western Kentucky looms next week, and I get the feeling this will be a much closer game than we all want it to be.