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Initial Impressions: Alabama puts away the Sooners and advances to the Big Dance

A resounding win with plenty of penalty and mental errors for coaching points this next week— this was pretty much a dream game for Nick Saban

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Orange Bowl-Alabama vs Oklahoma
“Kyler Murray is normally just as accurate as Tua Tagovailoa.” ~Kirk Herbstreit, covering for the Heisman voters
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be honest and say that, over the last month, I worked myself up into a nervous wreck over this game. Shades of the 2014 matchup with the Sooners kept running through my head, mixed in with PTSD from the 2012 and 2013 point-fests against Johnny Manziel. I imagined Oklahoma sending a million blitzes off of left end and Tua not adjusting, while the Sooners repeated ran Heisman-winner Kyler Murray around right end to take advantage of Saivion Smith’s oft-criticized run defense.

Instead, we saw a Tide offense that shot out of a cannon to 28 straight points while the defense opened the game with 3 quick tackles on the Ewok masquerading as a Heisman winner.

The opening play of the game showcased something that the Alabama offense has been missing since halfway through the season— a healthy DeVonta Smith at wide receiver. The quick slant off an RPO got the ball in his hands and Smith showcased to the world that his hamstring was finally in working order as he burned rubber and shot past the Sooner defense for 50 yards. After that, it was all Damien Harris. The senior took 2 carries for five yards, then caught a swing pass for 15 yards down the side line. Two more carries (with a fumble scare in between), and he was battering his way into the endzone.

A quick three and out, featuring Anfernee Jennings catching a fleet hobbit by the shoulder pads, and Alabama had the ball back on the 45 yard line. They put together an 8-play clock killer that would have been the stuff of dreams for Saban back in 2009. A couple of runs from Josh Jacobs, two chain moving passes to Jacobs and tight end Irv Smith, a 6-yard run from Najee Harris, then this ridiculous one-handed catch in traffic from Henry Ruggs III that has definitely gone under the radar:

Another quick defensive stop had Kyler Murray looking as frazzled as Frodo Baggins when he first started putting on the ring, and then Alabama had the ball back with a healthy Tua ready to do some more avenging of his Heisman snub.

And avenge he did. This throw made even Iron Man look rusty:

Thread the needle. Drop it in the bucket. Right in the breadbasket.

I dunno. Use whatever football cliche for “Wow, that was a good pass,” that you want. You can’t have had a more perfect throw from the best QB in the nation to the best receiver in the nation. Mike Locksley then dialed up a couple of two-QB package plays with Jalen Hurts before ramming the ball in with battering ram-turned-running back Damien Harris for his second TD of the day.

Murray finally did something that looked somewhat worthy of being on the same field as Tagovailoa when he tossed a dime to TE Grant Calcaterra for 18 yards over a linebacker’s head, then followed that up with running for a loss and tossing two incomplete passes in a row for a turnover on downs at their own 48.

Up 21-0, Josh Jacobs smelled blood against him home state and channeled his inner Ole Miss Landshark with 5 straight touches to paydirt.

You ever watched one of those Japanese game shows where the contestants try to fit their body in weird positions to slip through a wall that is moving unremittingly forward, only for them to fail as it throws them backwards into a foam pit? Well, that poor Oklahoma defender didn’t have a foam pit, but the rest was pretty much the same.

With a 28 point lead, the Tide defense finally slacked up a little as Murray tossed two beautiful balls down the field and covered 75 yards for a touchdown in just over a minute of game time. Outstanding wideout CeeDee Lamb burned Patrick Surtain II on a deep post across the field in what turned out to be a harbinger for the rest of what turned out to be Surtain’s worst night of his freshman season.

With the lead cut to 3 scores, Oklahoma committed back to back personal fouls and had to kick off from their own 10 yard line. Rather than taking advantage of this, Brian Robinson called fair catch at the 21 yard line, even though he wasn’t even returning the ball, ruining Jacobs’ chance at a big return. To continue the ineptness, Tua responded with a couple of incomplete passes and a botched screen for a quick three and out, and Oklahoma responded with a 10 play drive that somehow only covered 41 total yards. Murray extended one set of downs with an 11 yard scramble and converted a 4th down play with a back shoulder fade to Lamb that was perfectly executed and absolutely impossible to defend. In the end though, they had to settle for a field goal as the Tide defense stiffened up in the redzone.

Josh Jacobs picked up where he left off with chunk gains for 9, 7, and 12 yards in quick succession. Unfortunately, the 12 yarder was called back for ticky-tack if technically accurate holding call on Jedrick Wills. Another slant to DeVonta Smith followed by a 7 yard gash from Jacobs kept the drive alive, and Tua continued to chew up clock like a suburban dad on an oversized lawnmower on a Sunday afternoon with an 11-yard drag route to Jaylen Waddle and yet another swing pass to Jacobs.

At this point, the Tide had eaten nearly 6 minutes of game time and had a 3rd and 1 on the Oklahoma 15 yard line with the Sooners defense totally unable to do a thing about the Tide’s run game. Unfortunately, Jedrick Wills got his second penalty of the drive with a false start to make it 3rd and 6. No worries, though. Tua threw a TD strike to Irv Smith down the seam on the next play. Except this time Wills’ leg was apparently an inch too far backwards, making the entire formation illegal. ACC refs just don’t enjoy happiness, apparently.

On 3rd and long, Tua climbed the pocket and proved to everyone that his bionic ankles were, in fact, working, and very nearly got the first anyway. The Tide went to a wildcat on 4th down that had me cheering with joy at the fact that Saban was FINALLY going for the throat rather than playing it safe. Apparently, Ross Pierschbacher was also busy cheering and forgot to snap the ball. Damien Harris tried really hard not to move when the ball didn’t snap when it was supposed to, but he eventually toppled forward for another false start— Alabama’s 3rd procedural penalty in just two plays. This time, Saban settled for a field goal, and Bulovas converted. Give the man a Heisman.

Rather than either ending the half or actually trying to score, the Sooners faked going deep and then let Murray scramble a couple of times for 35 yards to pad his rushing stats and justify his trophy against an Alabama defense playing deep to prevent an actual scoring play.

The Sooners put together a 14 play drive to open the second half that was mostly incompletions with a dumb horse collar from Dylan Moses and a couple of nice 3rd down passes and scrambles to keep the drive rolling along without actually getting very many yards per play. It eventually petered out with a couple of incompletions in the endzone and Oklahoma had to settle for another field goal.

Alabama responded with a very 2009-like drive with a bunch of runs before taking a shot down the field. It might have been one of Tua’s best passes of his career down the left sideline as Jerry Jeudy put a nasty stop-n-go on his defender. Said defender barred Jeudy’s arm down at the last second (uncalled), and the Biletnikoff winner snagged it one handed as he went out of bounds. The replay guys eventually decided that the ball wiggled just a little bit after he went out of bounds, and was not a catch. I can’t complain too much, the call really could have gone either way. The rest of you just aren’t paying your dues to the REC, apparently.

Oklahoma got the ball back after an absolutely horrendous 22 yard punt from Mike Bernier, and Murray responded a few plays later with really his first moment that really held a candle to Tua Tagovailoa. He scrambled around right end and then launched a 50-yard bomb on the run over the heads of a trailing Xavier McKinney and Deionte Thompson to Charleston Rambo for a touchdown. The Tide went from a comfortable 28 point lead to a two-possession game, and I was starting to get nervous again. Flashbacks of AJ McCarron getting sacked over and over again against an undersized-but-speedy Oklahoma pass rush were starting to rush through my mind.

A personal foul on the kickoff pinned the Tide on their own 13 yard line, and I was chewing through fingernails at unprecedented speeds. Fortunately, Tua and company are better trained than I, and responded with a relentless 87 yard drive with no plays gaining less than 4 yards or more than 21... and not a single third down the whole way. Damien Harris and Najee Harris both got a couple of chain movers, and Tua completed passes to Ruggs, Waddle, and DeVonta Smith before hitting Smith again on a 10 yard slant for the touchdown.

Somewhere, in a desolate field of broken dreams, failed garage bands, and U2 albums, the ankles of Oklahoma’s #11 are laying abandoned and slightly singed.

To Murray’s part, he didn’t give up in the face of the inevitable onslaught of the Tide offense. He found his matchup of CeeDee Lamb against the freshman corner, Pat Surtain II, and exploited it over and over down the left side line, driving the ball for 80 yards and a touchdown with a 4th down conversion and three third down conversions to Lamb.

The Sooners attempted a “surprise” onside kick with 8 minutes left in the game that Nick Saban obviously anticipated, and this time the Tide offense had a short field to work with and extend the lead back to three scores.

Oklahoma’s #11 managed to find a new pair of ankles for this drive, only to have Jeudy judge them unworthy at the line of scrimmage as he released up the seam for Tua to hit for a 13-yard touchdown and effectively put the game out of reach.

Murray again drove the ball down the field (aided by an unsportsmanlike penalty from Raekwon Davis, who took his helmet off to argue with a ref), and scampered into the endzone to bring the game back to 11 points, but the Sooners couldn’t convert the onside kick, and Alabama ran the final 4 minutes out with some smashmouth, power running from both Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs.

As I said in the sub heading, this game had to have been an absolute dream for the inner being of Nick Saban. Alabama won comfortably and out executed the Sooners in most every play, save for some timely scrambles from the Ewok and a few beautiful passes from a Heisman QB to a 1st round receiver over a freshman cornerback. But there were enough penalties and mental mistakes (easily correctable), for him to have plenty of coaching material to keep his team grounded over the next 9 days leading up to the big dance.

Tua Tagovailoa was about as perfect as possible, putting up numbers unrealistic for even video games, going 24/27 for 318 yards and 4 touchdowns. Plus one of those incompletions was a 40-yarder that was caught, just slightly bobbled as his receiver went out of bounds. He had a few scrambles and runs that proved his ankle was totally healthy. Seeing him moving around and stepping into his throws again after so many games playing gimpy sure looked nice, huh?

Josh Jacobs was a monster, and very obviously played with a vengeance against his home state school that didn’t offer him a scholarship. 98 rushing yards and 60 receiving yards, plus about 3 broken ankles and one soul collected as he trucked a man into purgatory.

DeVonta Smith being healthy again might have been even more of a boost to the offense than Tua’s ankles. His chemistry with his QB is undeniable, and he went over 100 yards for the first time since early this season. For two seasons now, when the game in on the line, throw it to Smith. Especially on slants.

On defense, the Tide played fairly well considering the offense they were facing. Pat Surtain got picked on, but Saivion Smith might have had his best game of the season. The defensive line generally got pretty good pressure, even if they couldn’t always corral the 5’9” sparkplug in Murray in the backfield. They were absolutely stifling for most of the first half before slipping and giving up points at the end of the game. The Tide offense was good enough that it didn’t really matter, though.

I particularly want to point out Phidarian Mathis. The reserve defensive tackle came in the game a few times for a gassed Quinnen Williams, and twice ran down either a running back or receiver going to the sidelines. That kind of hustle and speed for such a big man bodes well for his likelihood of taking up the torch from Q next season as the starter.

All in all, this was a fun game where the Tide jumped to an early lead and, despite a few moments that had me starting to clench up a little, the game was never really in jeopardy as long as the team took care of business.

They’ll have to clean up the penalties and shore up the deep pass coverage in the next 9 days, as the margin for error against Clemson will be much smaller that they had against Oklahoma. The Tiger offense may not be quite as potent with human statue Trevor Lawrence captaining their passing game, but their defense will assuredly keep Tua at a lower passing accuracy than 89%.

For now though, enjoy the win, and just bask in how often the announcers had to make excuses for Kyler Murray getting the Heisman trophy over Tua Tagovaila.

Roll Tide!!!