Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Alabama played a football game against an elite opponent, the offense struggled to get anything going, but the defense was so good that it didn’t matter.
The Tide faced an offense that ranked #2 last season in S&P and rendered it virtually useless. Outside of one drive that included two jump balls thrown to 6’5” Auden Tate, the Seminoles managed only 160 total yards on the other 62 snaps, a paltry 2.58 yards per play. Indeed, the Tide defense reduced Florida State’s offense to something resembling a Sun Belt squad in the second half, allowing only 50 total yards on 25 snaps.
To be sure, it was a team effort on the defensive side. The Tide were able to get consistent pressure on FSU QB Deondre Francois when sending only four or five rushers against six and sometimes seven blockers. Predictably, Francois threw some interceptions against bad numbers and elite athletes on the back end. This secondary really didn’t have any glaring busts that I can recall. The only big play was a 38-yarder to Tate, and it was just a well placed ball. As a defensive coordinator, all you can do is force the offense to make those types of plays all night and bank on the fact that they won’t. That’s exactly what Jeremy Pruitt did, and Florida State didn’t.
The retooled defensive line was extremely encouraging. Da’Ron Payne was predictably seen around the ball all night, but he had help. Da’shawn Hand pushed double teams effectively for most of the night. Isaiah Buggs started on the weak side and acquitted himself well. The massive Raekwon Davis got his big paw up to bat a ball down and had one sack, on which Francois undoubtedly saw his life flash before his eyes. On third and long, a package featuring Hand and Payne inside with Terrell Lewis and Rashaan Evans outside was seen on a couple of occasions, and it was devastating.
As far as the secondary goes, the most important takeaway is that we never heard Trevon Diggs’ name called, which is a good thing. I haven’t seen All-22 film to determine whether he was getting help, but he was targeted rarely if at all. Anthony Averett was defending on the long ball to Tate and Minkah Fitzpatrick on the touchdown. Both were in great position, just out-sized. Levi Wallace was listed as the backup right cornerback and made the most of his playing time, making a beautiful interception with a well-executed bail technique.
The linebackers were stellar as well, despite losing Rashaan Evans and Terrell Lewis in the first half. Christian Miller played most of the game despite a hamstring issue. Mack Wilson came in for Evans and did his best Reuben Foster impersonation. Folks, that man is a freak athlete. He showed incredible closing speed, hands, and athleticism for a man of his size with a diving second half interception.
Offensively, it was rough. This was to be expected considering the opponent, but it was harder than it should have been. Florida State was aggressively stacking the box, on many occasions putting as many as eight defenders within three yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap. There was no respect whatsoever for the Alabama passing game, and unfortunately that was warranted. Jalen Hurts actually looked better throwing the ball when he threw it, but he also bailed on several clean pockets with positive numbers in the secondary. It appears that he was still locking on to his primary read and giving up too quickly if it isn’t there. The protection wasn’t flawless by any means, but it was a whole lot better than it seemed. For all of the tight ends and WRs on the roster, only Calvin Ridley registered a catch, though freshman Jerry Jeudy had one called back and Henry Ruggs dropped a touchdown. Expect to see a ton of pocket passing over the next two weeks. Importantly, Hurts protected the football and made a huge heads-up play to keep Derwin James from intercepting a swing pass and potentially running it back for a touchdown. Hurts actually registered a reception on the play.
The running game was about as good as you could expect against a team of this caliber, particularly with a stacked box. Damien Harris was the star of the day, gaining 73 yards on only 9 carries and adding a touchdown. He also blocked a punt, probably the biggest play of the night. Bo Scarbrough was used as a battering ram and got what he could, but there will be better nights for him. Najee Harris was eased in with a cameo role.
Special teams was a good news/bad news deal. Andy Pappanastos got all of the field goal tries and made three-of-five plus his only PAT attempt. Needless to say, we need to get better there. The last one was encouraging, as it was perfectly struck and split the uprights with plenty of leg. Punter J.K. Scott had one 9-yard shank, but was excellent the rest of the night, pinning Florida State inside the ten on three occasions. Those kicks worked against his net punting average, but he did his job masterfully.
The Tide blocked a field goal and a punt, and forced a fumble on a kickoff return. Jimbo Fisher will probably get some questions on the punt as they seemingly came out in some sort of different formation, didn’t line up right, and blocked almost no one. Damien Harris and freshman LB Dylan Moses were in a race to the punter’s foot, with Harris winning. Punt and kick returns were uneventful.
The injury report sounded less than positive. Saban called Lewis and Evans “very questionable” with an elbow and a groin issue, respectively. Hopefully this doesn’t mean the worst. Hootie Jones was seen in a sling after the game, and of course Miller was banged up as well. Let’s hope all are able to recover soon, along with Francois, who went down late with what looked to be a major knee injury.
In the end, we would have been thrilled to escape this game with a one-point victory. It was a war of attrition, and the Tide prevailed. The execution needs to improve, but this team appears to have toughness to match its athleticism. If the effort is consistent, it’s hard to see many teams competing with them.