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Initial Impressions: Alabama sends Vanderbilt to bed without supper

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Final Score: 59 -0

NCAA Football: Alabama at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Well, how about that?

After being rendered 1-dimensional and eventually losing at the end of the 2016 season, Alabama has had to deal with fans wanting absolute perfection this season. Beat the #2 team in the nation? “The passing game didn’t do much and we can’t depend on special teams plays.”

Demolish a bad Fresno State team? “The offensive line and defensive line are getting no push or pass rush”

Beat a solid Colorado State and surrender a few garbage time points with the second-team defense? “The vaunted Alabama defense has taken its step back and can no longer tackle or cover the pass. The season is doomed.”

So what did the 2017 Tide do? They came out against a Vanderbilt team leading the SEC in pass efficiency and defense (and also coming off a win over a top-20 program) and absolutely walloped them in every way imaginable. 59-0 was generous. Nick Saban took out the starters after the first drive of the second half and spent the last 13 minutes of the game trying not to score again.

It wasn’t just that the Tide racked up 496 rushing yards (not total yards... rushing yards), and it wasn’t just that the defense held Vandy to a TOTAL of 78 yards on the entire night. It was that Alabama finally put together a totally, wholly, and undeniably dominant performance in every way imaginable. It got to the point that Gary Danielson and Brad Nessler were just laughing in disbelief every time the Tide subbed in a new true freshman who subsequently made a great play.

On offense, the biggest story of the night was scheme that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll put together. He’s seemed to change a little bit for every one of the first three games, trying to find his groove in utilizing the tremendous amount of talent in Tuscaloosa. And I think tonight marks the night that he found this team’s offensive identity.

I know you’ll all be pleased to know that it centered around running the ball. The Alabama offensive line put together what felt like it’s best performance since the 2012 season, as Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough ripped off chunk gain after chunk gain, and Jalen Hurts had time to (GASP) step up into the pocket and make throws across the middle or scramble forward for an easy first down.

His passing stats, 9/17 for 78 yards, may not look like much, but he did have two sure touchdowns dropped when Calvin Ridley let one bounce off his chest and Scarbrough’s eyes got too big on an uncovered swing pass. Plus a couple more balls that were perfectly thrown to Ridley and Robert Foster in slightly contested coverage were also dropped, and one more when a defensive back tackled Ridley after being beat to draw the pass interference, allowing the running game to pick up the score on the next play. With those added, Hurts’ stats for only playing one half of football would be nearly perfect.

Daboll seems to have really emphasized timing passes like slants and curls across the middle to bolster the swings and screens that the team has performed so well the last few seasons under Kiffin. He’s still attempting deep balls just enough to keep defenses honest, and though none did this game, they are connecting enough to be lethal to an over-aggressive defense. Oh, and he went 9/15 on third down.

The running game... what can I say? It was utterly dominant. Draws, sweeps, and zone runs out of the shotgun were effective. So were dives out of the pistol. We even saw a Strong I throwback to the 90’s and 2000’s pro offenses and a terrifying Jumbo Package on the goal line with enough linemen (and defensive linemen) to put Golden Corral out of business.

Damien Harris had 151 yards and 3 touchdowns on only 12 carries, while Bo Scarbrough carried it 11 times for 79 yards and 2 more touchdowns. Harris continues to display the NFL-caliber vision and feel for following blocks just the right way to come away with consistent big gains. He can cut on a dime, has the balance to get the yards he needs when falling, and can fight through tackles when in space. He’s an all-around amazing back who also did this:

Scarbrough, on the other hand, continues to show recovery from his injury and is looking more in shape than he’s ever been. While last year he made his name on pure size and speed, he’s trimmed down a little and gained some flexibility this year, showing an ability to change directions and juke defenders that we haven’t seen in the past. He didn’t break any huge runs today, but consistently moved the chains every time he touched the ball. Oh, and have you ever seen a 230-pound human being have this kind of speed an balance?

Josh Jacobs got a couple of carries, but coach is obviously still trying to protect his hamstring injury. There are few things as annoyingly lingering as a hammy, so I support holding Jacobs out still 100%. All it takes is one wrong step to reset all the rehab he’s done so far.

That said, Daboll did have a formation with both Jacobs and Scarbrough split beside Jalen Hurts. A 230 pound bruiser and 210 pound shifty guy, both of whom are exceptional receivers. He didn’t really try anything with it, but the fact that he threw that formation out really speaks to my soul. I LOVE a 2-back offense.

Freshman Najee Harris looked a little more confident this week, generally hitting the right holes while also showing off his physical talent while running through guys as well as hurdling over them. Brian Robinson also got his first collegiate action, featuring as a full back in the aforementioned Strong I, and then getting some carries (and a touchdown!) at tailback later in the game. Even senior Ronnie Clark, the linebacker/safety/tight end/running back hybrid got some carries for what I think was the first time in his adversarial career.

Calvin Ridley still got the lion’s share of passing targets. Robert Foster had a couple of targets, though he dropped one and ended up losing yards on the other. Cam Sims caught a ball after Devonta Smith was leveled on a screen and dropped it, in similar fashion to the ever-effective Ole Miss Helmet Pass. Jerry Jeudy also had an impressive toe tapper on the right sideline when Hurts was flushed out of the pocket and rocketed one to him on the run.

After Hurts’s half, freshman Tua Tagovailoa came in and put on a clinic to scare the entire SEC for years to come. He went 8/10 for 103 yards and 2 touchdowns while also gaining 22 yards on a read option keeper. He may not be quite the runner that Hurts is, but he was still the #1 dual threat QB in high school for a reason. The lefty threw some gorgeous touch passes down field and to the side lines, and one of his two incompletions was actually a beauty of bomb that hit Ridley in the chest despite the fact that Ridley was running away from Tua, but the defender ended up stripping it out.

He’s basically a true freshman, left-handed cross between Russel Wilson and Johnny Manziel. Have fun with that, SEC.

Now on to the defense.

They caught some criticism last week after a somewhat uninspired performance against a Colorado State (who, by the way, was made of mostly third-year starters across the board, including an All-American receiver and high-volume QB. But don’t let that get in the way of a declining Bama narrative). This week, however, they shut Vandy down to a solid 0 points and 78 yards all night. They were 1/10 on third down, and ended up with over twice as many punts as QB Kyle Schurmur completed passes.

Anfernee Jennings and Rashaan Evans both returned from injury this week, and their impact was immediate. Not only was it an influx of talent and veteran leadership, but the extra bodies allowed Alabama to substitute to get the best players for each situation, rather than being limited to just the players healthy. Shaun Dion Hamilton and Evans are as stalwart a duo in the middle as any one can ask, and Evans would sometimes move outside to rush the passer while Keith Holcome, who’s earned his stripes the last few weeks, would fill the middle just as admirably.

On top of that, Mack Wilson got to move away from the middle and did some edge rushing, where he was an unexpected force to be reckoned with. He was constantly beating the left tackle both to the inside and the out and putting pressure on the QB every time he came in the game. Many of us expected him to be the next great middle linebacker for Bama, but if tonight were any indication, he may actually end up excelling on the edge instead. That’s not a bad thing either. They get paid a WHOLE lot more in the pros than do the inside backers.

The corners were nearly perfect, though rarely challenged. Averrett got away with a small pass interference, but was otherwise glue. Levi Wallace had a really impressive breakup down the field too, getting an eye on the ball and swatting it away, despite being a step behind the receiver. The safeties were bored all game, though Harrison did pick off a tipped ball early on.

Along the defensive line, we all know that Da’Ron Payne is a monstrous human being who will be making a lot of money very soon. But the other big men around him have been trying to find their place. Senior D’Shawn Hand has been on the cusp of breaking out for 4 years and has been consistent if not disruptive so far this season, but tonight he became the latter as well. He was in the backfield nearly every play, whether it was stopping a run for a loss or flushing the QB into making a bad throw. Raekwon Davis is also showing flashes, if not yet consistently. And senior Josh Frazier was in the backfield WAY more often than one would expect from a back up nose tackle.

The special teams didn’t get much of an opportunity to do much. JK Scott punted a couple of times, including one that he bounced sideways at the 5 yard line and ran it out of bounds. Give that man a Heisman. Trevon Diggs muffed a punt, but also had one decent return. Henry Ruggs also muffed one, but he picked it up immediately AND turned it into a decent return. Andy Pappanastos hit a 22 yard field goal, but looked to be cutting it way to close on every single extra point. The coverage teams were totally solid as well, and Daniel Wright continues to be an impact maker as a gunner on kick offs.

It was an utterly dominant win against a team many though was on an upswing and on the verge of maybe being ranked. The defense got a shot in the arm with the return of 2 starting linebackers, while the offensive line continues to gel and the new offensive coordinator seems to be settling on an identity that fits his players like a glove. What more can an Alabama fan ask for?

Roll Tide!