Over the past two weeks, this Alabama football team looked like one of the best ever. The games against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss were essentially over before they started, as the Tide defense suffocated the opponent while the offense bludgeoned them. Once again, the college football media started wondering aloud if anyone could beat this team, and Nick Saban was tasked with the challenge of keeping them grounded. Based on last night’s second half performance, it appears that they may have read too much of their own hype.
Of course, Texas A&M probably read some of it, too.
It truly was a tale of two halves, as the Tide kept pounding at a solid Aggies defense in the first to take a 17-3 lead into halftime on the back of a healthy 9.1 yards per carry. Damien Harris was the bellcow, busting loose for a 75-yard TD on an inside zone play with one of his signature jump-cuts, then later slashing through the Aggies defense and even trucking a safety for a 27-yarder to set up the Tide’s second score. You really can’t say enough about Damien’s performance this season. Kid has averaged 8.4 yards per carry and filled up the highlight reel.
Unfortunately, the Tide averaged less than two yards per carry in the second half, as the Texas A&M defense began selling out to stop the run. Rather than make them pay for the aggressiveness, the Alabama passing game went impotent again. Jalen Hurts showed flashes with a few really good passes but had a very uneven performance overall. There were a couple of drops mixed into his stat line, but he also benefitted from a couple of outstanding grabs by Calvin Ridley.
For whatever reason, Jalen went back into happy feet mode for much of the evening. The Texas A&M pass rush really wasn’t getting home, but Hurts was feeling ghosts. He still does not want to step up in the pocket when the tackles run speed rushers around him, as they are supposed to do. On a second half sack, Jonah Williams threw up his hands in frustration after Jalen bailed right into well-blocked defenders. Jalen finished with a paltry 123 yards on 22 attempts. To be frank, Aggies QB Kellen Mond was under far more duress all game and managed to keep his eyes downfield to make some spectacular plays in the passing game. The true freshman absolutely looked like the superior passer. I don’t know what it will take to get Jalen to have more patience against defenses with enough talent to take away his first read regularly, but for the second time this season this issue hamstrung the offense. To his credit, Jalen still hasn’t turned the football over all year.
Defensively, the Tide struggled early against the quick swing pass. RB Trayveon Williams is a legit 4.4 speedster, and it showed as he routinely beat Shaun Dion Hamilton to the spot on those plays. That was really about all they could get going in a conventional sense, however. Alabama expertly snuffed out the running game, as Williams and running mate Keith Ford managed only 47 yards on 26 carries. The pass rush was ferocious as well, underscoring the crazy depth on this front seven. What other college football team can lose its two top pass rushing OLBs and its most accomplished DE, and still perform at that kind of level? Isaiah Buggs may have had his breakout performance, as he was a monster all night. Freshmen Quinnen Williams and LaBryan Ray managed a sack apiece, DaRon Payne was seemingly everywhere as usual, and Raekwon Davis was pushing people around.
Indeed, it’s tough to fault the Tide defense for the moderate success that the Aggies found in the second half. Mond simply extended plays on a few occasions long enough for his WRs to get open. No secondary can cover everyone for 5-6 seconds, and Mond showed just how dangerous a mobile and accurate QB can be. The pass he made at the end of the game, escaping a collapsing pocket then rolling to his right and fitting a perfect ball between three defenders to get the Aggies in position for their last touchdown, was nothing short of incredible. Of course, he did throw a critical interception as well and fumbled the ball on a scramble. The Aggies were the team with nothing to lose, and they played as such.
JK Scott had perhaps his worst night in Crimson with a missed field goal and a shank to go with a blocked punt that very clearly was not his fault. That blocked punt was likely a blessing in disguise. Not sure why more teams don’t strategically take safeties under those conditions, but it is the right play statistically. Two points out of a 14 point lead is a small price to pay for flipping the field at that stage of the game, particularly when a clean punt would have given Christian Kirk a chance to catch the ball inside Alabama territory where one play by Mond can get the ball into the end zone. As you recall, the Aggies promptly cashed in on Robert Foster’s fumble in that area of the field.
Speaking of Foster, woof. That poor guy is going to want to hide under the table in film study, particularly on the series that ended with his fumble. On first down he drew a flag by lining up incorrectly, dropped a perfectly thrown ball on second, then fumbled on third. Calvin Ridley had left the game with a thigh bruise, and Foster did not respond well. Hopefully he is able to bounce back and Ridley gets well soon. Saban did not seem overly concerned about Calvin’s injury, nor a sprained knee suffered by Tony Brown. Those two were seemingly the only notable casualties.
In general, it appeared that the Tide expected the Aggies to lie down the way that Vandy and Ole Miss did after the score on the opening possession of the third quarter pushed the lead to 24-3. To their credit, the Aggies continued to fight and hopefully dealt Alabama a bit of humility along the way. This Alabama team is an excellent one, but it isn’t perfect or infallible. After the last struggle, at home against Colorado State, the team responded in resounding fashion. Hopefully we see some of that next week with the Hogs rolling into town.