Nick Saban had a plan all along (and of course he didn’t tell us). As has been and will be repeated ad nauseam, Blake Barnett was the youngest quarterback to start under Saban at Alabama. He lasted two ineffective series before Jalen Hurts trotted out there, as was intended.
Hurts had a forgettable first play, but he put it behind him fairly quickly. Despite only going 6-11 for 119 yards, Hurts made it count, with two of his six completions going for touchdowns. He added another two scores on the ground. Not exactly a bad debut by a true freshman.
1st and 10: Almost eight months to the day after arriving in Tuscaloosa, Hurts takes his first snap as Alabama’s quarterback in a real game situation. Underwhelming would be an understatement. Bama is in the pistol with Damien Harris behind Hurts. TE Hale Hentges starts on the left while ArDarius Stewart is close to the line on the right. Stewart comes into the backfield to fake taking the handoff, and Hentges moves to the right. Hurts takes a little too long to read the unblocked defensive end and tries to pull the ball back from Harris. It’s the correct read, but the delay causes disaster. The ball tumbles to the ground; and, instead of just falling on it, Hurts vainly attempts to scoop and run with it. USC dives on it for the recovery.
3rd and 10: It’s the third series for Hurts. His second drive did last three times as long as his first at least (three plays that time), but it’s looking like another three and out. Alabama is in the pistol again with Harris as the back. ArDarius Stewart is the lone receiver to the right, and Calvin Ridley is wide left with Gehrig Dieter in the slot next to him. O.J. Howard motions right to left to set up to block the linebacker. Hurts gets the snap and rolls to his left, reducing the amount of field he has to read by half. He fires a laser on the run to Ridley, who just ran a curl route right to the line to gain. Hurts puts it right on the money; and Ridley makes an impressive sideline catch, keeping both feet in bounds. Great third down conversion to keep the drive alive.
3rd and 13: 3rd and long for Hurts again, and it looks like Alabama is about to squander some great field position. The Tide are have 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end), and it’s the pistol with Harris as the back once more. ArDarius Stewart is wide right, Gehrig Dieter is in the slot on that side, and Calvin Ridley is by himself on the left. Hurts rolls out to his right and spots Stewart. He throws a beauty of a bomb about 55 yards in the air to hit Stewart for a 39 yard touchdown, Alabama’s first of the season. Hurts saw Stewart had a step on Iman Marshall in one-on-one coverage with the safety too far to the middle to affect things. Here’s another shot:
3rd and 6: More 11 personnel for Alabama. Stewart is to the right with Dieter and Ridley on the left, in that order. Hentges is also on the right with RT Jonah Williams, and Harris is in the backfield. Both Harris and Hentges stay home to block, but it doesn’t even matter. Somebody on the Trojans done goofed; and they blitzed the left side of their secondary, leaving Stewart wiiiiiiiiiiiiiide open. Hurts correctly identifies this and makes the easy toss. Stewart hauls it in and is off to the races for a 71 yard touchdown. Blown coverage by USC, but Hurts does a fine job recognizing it and calmly exploiting it.
1st and goal: The Tide are threatening after a special teams snafu gave Bama the ball on the USC 13 yard line. 01 personnel (0 running backs, 1 tight end) with Robert Foster, Dieter, Howard, Ridley, and Stewart all in. Howard motions to the left side of the line where Foster, Dieter, and Ridley are out wide. Howard cuts back to the right on the snap, and the safety responsible for him flows in that direction. Ridley pretends to set up for a WR screen on the left, and the defensive back on him jumps down to try and take that away. Add in a blitzing middle linebacker, and there is an enormous area of field with no Trojan defenders. Everything falls into place on this designed QB run for Hurts. Bozeman does an excellent job driving the defensive tackle back, and Cam Robinson has sealed his man off from the inside. Hurts moves up and sees his initial hole filled by a safety, so he cuts back around Bozeman’s left. He shrugs off an attempted arm tackle by the safety desperately trying to get back and waltzes into the endzone. Good vision, nifty moves, and fantastic play design.
3rd and 10: Can Jalen Hurts work some more third down magic? As you can see from the graphic, he’s 3-4 for 120 yards and two touchdowns already. It’s the familiar look of 11 personnel with Stewart and Ridley out wide on each side and Dieter in the slot, this time on the right with Stewart. Hurts only has eyes for his favorite target: ArDarius Stewart. With Iman Marshall in close coverage underneath Stewart (and a safety nearby, too), Hurts makes an ill-advised decision to force the pass; and Marshall leaps up and snags the interception. Hurts should have come off Stewart and gone to his next read. It’s a freshman mistake for the freshman.
1st and goal: Damien Harris’s second long run of the night puts Alabama at the Trojan 6 yard line. 11 personnel. Ridley and Dieter on the left, Stewart on the right. Howard motions left to right pre-snap. It’s a designed quarterback run for Hurts, and everybody flows right. Hurts patiently runs parallel to the line, waiting for his chance. Howard and Stewart show off their blocking skills, keeping their defenders engaged. Hurts gets the edge and scampers into the endzone for a touchdown. Another display of his vision.
It was an up-and-down performance for Hurts, but that’s what you’d expect from a true freshman in his first game. Despite some critical errors that resulted in turnovers, he flashed brilliance with his big play ability. The quarterback battle likely isn’t over with Blake Barnett throwing some pretty balls when he came back in late in the 3rd; but if Jalen Hurts continues to work on moving through his progressions and cuts down on the turnovers, then college football better look out.