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Initial Impressions: Tide washes over the Razorbacks

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Apparently, pigs don’t swim very well

NCAA Football: Alabama at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It all started when ESPN announced that, because of some weird company policy, the cameramen weren’t allowed to work the cameras due to proximity of a lightning strike (although the rest of everyone in the stadium carried on as usual).

While I was trying to figure that out and the camera was zoomed waaay out, Tua Tagovailoa ran a playaction bootleg to the right side to open the game and tossed it to tight end Irv Smith on a middle crossing route. Smith picked up the first down and was then pinned on the sideline. I looked away, assuming he’d go out of bounds, and then he was all of a sudden racing up the sideline with the whole defense behind him. It was the kind of play to make OJ Howard proud.

Arkansas then got the ball and picked up a couple of first downs, but QB Ty Storey was eventually strip-sacked by Isaiah Buggs. Jedrick Wills picked up a false start on the ensuing possession, followed by Damien Harris getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. The led to Greg McElroy making the comment that Arkansas’s defense really looked like it was settling in. The very next play was an RPO strike to Irv Smith again down the seam. This time, he broke about 4 tackles and was dragging a couple of defenders toward the endzone when the ball just popped right out of his grasp. Fortunately, Henry Ruggs rocketed in from off screen and picked up the loose ball from right in front of two defenders and dove into the endzone. It was a little unconventional, but, three plays into the game, Tua Tagovailoa was 2/2 for 123 yards and 2 touchdowns.

After a quick three and out, Alabama got the ball back and Nick Saban and Mike Locksley decided to have a little bit of fun with the rest of the nation. Tagovailoa came out at QB, and Jalen Hurts lined up as a slot receiver. Hurts went in motion and took the handoff on a jet sweep around left end and picked up 5 yards. Then, rather than sending Hurts back to the bench, he lined up at QB and Tagovailoa swapped with him and lined up at slot receiver. This time, Hurts executed a play-fake and ran a QB draw up the middle for 27 yards. After that, Hurts came out of the game and both Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris came in. With some elaborate double play-action, Harris took back to back plays for 13 yards— one a run and one a pass. After a 15 yard strike to Jerry Jeudy, the Tide offense was on the one yard line, and Jacobs took it in for an easy score.

If there were ever a more fun series of offensive plays to watch than this one, I’ve yet to see it. And as an added bonus, Saban gave every single future opponent a formation to have to spend time practicing defending in case he decides to deploy it again.

Alabama was up comfortable at 21-0 at this point, but the Razorbacks weren’t giving up. A series of crossing routes, screens, and pick plays led them on an 11 play- 75 yard touchdown drive that had the middle linebackers, particularly Mack Wilson, looking absolutely lost.

Alabama called 4 straight runs, and gained 9.5 yards out of it, turning the ball over on downs. Two plays later, Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd busted off a 32-yard run to the 5-yard line, and suddenly all the Alabama fans were feeling quite uncomfortable. Arkansas ran a read option, and QB Ty Storey slipped through a hole in the line towards the endzone, but Quinnen Williams reached out and made the tackle, knocking the ball out in the process. Deionte Thompson then recovered in the 12 yard line.

After being stuffed on 4th down the drive before, Damien Harris came out running angry. He stiff armed some hapless razorback into oblivion around left end for 11 yards to get the Tide some breathing room. Tua completed a couple of strikes to Jeudy and Ruggs for 39 yards, then Najee Harris took a carry for 7 yards. After being wrapped up and going backwards to the ground, an Arkansas defender straight up speared him in the back of the head, and the ball popped out. After a very long review, the referees decided it was not a targeting, but his elbow was down before he lost possession. Whatever.

The very next play, Tua stepped up into the pocket and calmly slid around Alex Leatherwood, who was pushed back into the pocket (and may or may not have gotten away with holding) and then launched a 42 yard bomb to Jeudy, who caught it in stride for another TD.

Credit to Chad Morris, Arkansas had less quit in them than any other team Alabama has played so far. Storey completed a couple of beautiful passes in quick succession for 55 yards. They tried some weird trick play with a direct snap to the running back that Alabama sniffed out, but Raekwon Davis caught hold of his facemask, and then Arkansas had the ball on the 1 yard line. 270-pound behemoth QB Cole Kelley came in and fell forward like a falling oak tree and got the touchdown.

This time, when Alabama got the ball back, Coach Saban finally decided to feed Damien Harris in an old-school drive. Harris took four straight carries for 40 yards, then Tagovailoa completed a couple of mid-range first downs to Jaylen Waddle before Harris got to close out the drive with a 2 yard touchdown. Joseph Bulovas proceeded to miss the extra point.

This time, the Tide defense stiffened up and forced the three and out, and Alabama got the ball back with 1:38 to go in the first half. Saban obviously wanted Tua to get a little more 2-minute drill experienced. However, yet again, he scored a lot faster than in two minutes. On the first play, he threw a slant off of play action, and Jeudy then outran every defender for a 60-yard catch and sprint touchdown.

Another Arkansas three and out saw Alabama with the ball again with 23 seconds. Rather than running the clock, Saban actually decided to let the offense try again. This time, Tagovailoa didn’t pull the trigger as the pocket collapsed on him, and someone hit his arm as he threw it. It was ruled an incomplete pass, but was dangerously close to a fumble. After than, Saban was happy to run out the clock. Score at half: 41-14.

Arkansas opened the second half with a turnover on downs, and then Alabama again decided to feed Damien. The outstanding senior took two runs for 19 and 18 yards. He was stopped for no gain, then came back with a 5 yard gain and a 1 yard gain to get to the one yard line. On 4th and one, Alabama came out in a full-house pistol formation (with Harris, Josh Jacobs, and Brian Robinson all in the back field). Harris leapt over the line for his second TD of the game.

At this point, Alabama started to shift into cruise control. The defense gave up an 11 play drive aided by a really really weak roughing the passer call, but buckled down and forced the field goal. Jalen Hurts then came into the game and, along with Najee Harris, led the Tide on a 10-play field goal drive of their own.

On the next Razorback possession, Storey tried to throw a crossing route, but Dylan Moses was in such good coverage that he slipped his hand in and tipped the ball into the air. Shyheim Carter nabbed it and took it back to the edzone for his second pick-6 of the year.

From there, Arkansas had 2 more long touchdown drives against the 2nd team Tide defense that had to drive Saban crazy, and Hurts and Brian Robinson had another TD drive as well.

Final score: 65-31.

At this point, the only real criticism of the offense is that there are just too many playmakers and we don’t get to see all of them featured every game. Tua has been phenomenal, Jeudy would probably be a Heisman frontrunner if it weren’t for the fact he was being outshined by his QB, Irv Smith is looking like the kind of pass catching TE that gets drafted in the 1st round, and the running backs are a perfectly balanced committee that can run and catch out of the backfield with equally deadly explosiveness. Tua finished the game 10/13 for 334 yards and 4 touchdowns. That’s nuts. And he didn’t even complete a pass in the entire second half. Damien Harris had over 100 yards rushing despite really only being featured on 2 drives the entire game. And the Tide had two different receivers go over 100 yards— Jeudy and Irv Smith.

Defense was another story though. The defensive line only had minimal pass rush, and also allowed quite a few run plays to slip past them into the second level. Mack Wilson was a liability in coverage, especially against screens and crossers in the middle of the field. All three cornerbacks in Diggs, Surtain, and Carter had some coverage mishaps, and Carter got embarrassed a couple of times trying to make a tackle.

Diggs did have a couple of really impressive plays on the ball in the air, and Surtain forced a fumble. And Carter had a pick 6, even if it was Moses that did the hard work. So they made up for a few coverage gaffes with their overall play.

The two safeties, Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney, were absolutely stellar though. On a day when it seem like the rest of the team was trying to tackle greased pigs (ha), McKinney made a number of impressive open field tackles to limit yardage. He was also extremely effective as a blitzer. Thompson too continued to display his ranginess in both pass coverage and run defense.

And then there was special teams. Joseph Bulovas missed an extra point, but he did make a 22-yard field goal (yay?). Punter Skylar DeLong didn’t get a chance to punt for the second straight game. If we keep this up, he might could redshirt despite being the starting punter. Jaylen Waddle didn’t have a chance to return any punts, and Jacobs didn’t do any damage on his kick returns. The kick coverage team was mostly solid, though they did let one big one through. Fortunately Nigel Knott appeared from the depths of nowhere and chased down the runner to prevent the TD.

So, this one wound up being a much higher scoring game than we’re used to seeing from a Nick Saban program. In fact, it might be the most total points in a single game. You can fact check me on that, I’m just going on memory. I know that has to eat up Saban on the defensive end. But on offense, he made it clear today he’s just as happy passing for touchdowns as he is running for them. To paraphrase Nick: If they keep stacking the box, we’ll keep passing on them. Pick your poison. A touchdown is 6 points, whether it comes from the air or the ground.

Even Nick is showing a little bit of cockiness in just how good this offense is. I like the sound of that.

Roll Tide!