Let the Tua Tagovailoa era begin.
After all of the offseason hand-wringing, it turns out that Nick Saban knows what he’s doing. Imagine that.
Tua started the game and didn’t come out until the Tide had a comfortable 21-0 cushion that would have likely been 28, save for a fumble after a nifty move by Devonta Smith to gain a first down. With Tagovailoa running things, the passing game was every bit as spectacular as Alabama fans dreamed it would be. Seven players caught passes, five caught multiple passes, and as a team the Tide averaged a whopping 17.5 yards per catch.
When I watch Tua play, one word comes to mind: quick. He has a certain sense of urgency about him, and everything about him is quick, from his eyes to his release to his feet. The great QBs see the play unfold before it does and throw the ball to the open spot on the field rather than a man, and that defines Tua in a nutshell. After a couple of perfectly thrown slants to get down the field, his first TD pass of the season came on a play where he danced in the pocket and threw what almost seemed like a no-look pass to the back corner of the end zone, where Jerry Jeudy adjusted and caught the football behind a defender who never got his head around. In general, Tua’s accuracy was impeccable and he seemingly threw the ball to the right receiver on time, every time. He threw for only 227 yards because that was more than the Tide needed on this night, but finished with an absurd 235.4 passer rating and 14.2 yards per attempt.
If the QB is doing well, then the receivers and pass pro must be doing pretty well also. To be sure, there were a couple of breakdowns in offensive line communication early, particularly on Tua’s first dropback when neither Alex Leatherwood nor Jedrick Wills blocked a DL on a loop stunt. Those types of things are expected with a new group in its first action, though, and as the game wore on the big men up front settled in.
Fumble notwithstanding, Smith was the receiving star on the night with four catches for 99 yards. He showed substantial run-after-catch ability. Jerry Jeudy caught 4/64 and both of Tua’s TD passes. Henry Ruggs had a relatively quiet night with only 2/15, but he will have his day. The most exciting development of the evening besides the Tua Show was freshman Jaylen Waddle’s coming out party. He hauled in 3/66 including a beautiful extension to catch a deep ball that was just a shade overthrown, and flashed unreal ability in the return game. Waddle is a pure slot receiver of the variety that we haven’t seen in Tuscaloosa, and his career just happens to coincide with a QB who knows how to use him.
The run game was strong but somewhat inconsistent against Louisville’s obvious effort early to force the Tide to throw, a strategy that has been heavily utilized by opponents in years past but is likely to change going forward. The Tide’s top four RBs finished with 172 yards on 28 carries, a robust 6.1 average. Najee Harris had the weakest average at only 3.8, but two of his eight carries were used to gain the final yard of a first half TD drive. Damien Harris led the way with 7/55, but his best moment came on the Tide’s second TD when he mauled a safety into the sideline to allow Tagovailoa to waltz in untouched. Both Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson played like studs when given the opportunity, underscoring the depth of what might be the best position group in the nation.
Defensively, it’s hard to gripe when the opponent’s first points come after you have accumulated 34, but there were some issues. The front seven looked as fast and physical as ever, completely stuffing the Louisville run game. The Cards’ top three running backs combined for only 21 yards on 15 carries. After feeling out the opponent early in classic Saban fashion, the Tide turned up the heat on Jawon Pass as well, finishing with three sacks and several hits. The secondary held up well for the most part and Deionte Thompson looks like a breakout star at free safety. He showed range that we haven’t seen since Ha Ha Clinton-Dix moved to Green Bay, picking off one pass and narrowly missing another that he caught out of bounds. Shyheim Carter got a gift pick six on a head scratching decision and throw by Pass in the second half.
The special teams performance suggests that we are going to be a lot better at returning than kicking. Austin Jones was uneven, drilling a 47-yarder but missing a chip shot and an extra point. Skyler DeLong had a rather pedestrian performance in his first game, averaging 36 yards on three punts but making no huge gaffes. Jacobs took a short kickoff 77 yards to the house. That kid has battled through multiple nagging injuries, so it was great to see him show out. Waddle is going to be the best returner we’ve had since Javier Arenas. He is slippery and fast, and would have had a punt return TD if not for an unnecessary block in the back by Joshua McMillon that sent Saban into a fit of rage on the sideline. Nick was still fuming about it at the press conference. The difference in the return game was notable and has Jeff Banks’ fingerprints all over it. Coverage units looked strong in all areas as well.
Overall dominance aside, there will be areas to correct. First off, the team was flagged ten times for 111 yards. As the math would indicate, there were quite a few 15-yarders thrown in there, mostly for unsportsmanlike conduct. Granted, some of it was the crotchety old ref trying to keep the college kids from having fun playing a game, but there were a few unacceptable penalties as well. Christian Miller drew one of Saban’s infamous ass-chewings by uncharacteristically losing his cool and shoving a Louisville player after the play to extend a drive that would result in Louisville’s first points. McMillon’s penalty was awful, and Saivion Smith’s mouth seems to get a little loose on the field. Something tells me that penalties are going to be punitively addressed at practice this week.
As expected with a green group, there were some lapses in pass coverage as well. The linebackers struggled in particular, both picking up their assignments on running backs and communicating pass-offs on crossing routes. There were a few too many yards to be had in the intermediate middle of the field area. Hopefully those opportunities will close up somewhat as the group begins to jell.
Most importantly, the Tide won the game easily and escaped without a single injury, which is a welcome sight after last season’s opener. Next week’s game comes at an ideal time. Arkansas State isn’t going to be a threat to win the game, but they do chuck the ball all over the field and will give the secondary some needed reps before the trip to Oxford where Jordan Ta’amu and an elite receiving corps await. College football is back, folks, and this season looks to be another great one for Alabama fans.