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Initial Impressions: Tide drowns the Aggies

Final Score: 45-23

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Well, if you took the Vegas line of Alabama winning by 26.5, then you were probably upset with the final A&M touchdown. Or if you’re Nick Saban. You’d be upset then too.

For the rest of us, it was about as good a game as a normal Alabama fan could ask for. A solid, drama-less win over a top 25 team.

The Aggies got the ball first and ran for a solid 0 yards on the first play. On play two, Kellen Mond was pressured into a bad throw, which, though destined for the ground, was miraculously cradled into Mack Wilson’s outstretched mitts as he dove forward for an interception.

The very next play, Tua Tagovailoa and Devonte Smith pulled the ultimate dejavu as the southpaw lobbed a beauty of a throw with all the precision of guided missile strike, and Smith laid out for a diving catch in the endzone. That was about as excited and explosive a start as anyone could ask for.

The teams then traded a couple of punts, and then Kellen Mond made some Alabama defenders miss on a scramble before outrunning nearly the entire secondary for a 54 yard gain. Two plays later, A&M tight end Jace Sternberger slipped wide open down the seam on a linebacker-safety coverage mixup for a 15 yard touchdown, tying things up 7-7.

Instead of wilting under the first signs of competition they’ve seen this season, Alabama tightened up and drove down the field on a methodical 7-play drive that mixed in runs, short passes, RB dump offs, and finally a QB bootleg for a 1-yard rushing touchdown for Tagovailoa (that was set up by one of the most impressive 10-yard runs from Damien Harris I’ve ever seen).

After another punt from A&M, Alabama wound up backed up in their own endzone. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who’s been otherwise stellar so far this season, suddenly had a glitch in the system after a holding call backed them up even further. Rather than trying to overcome the 1st and 20 with an agressive, Heisman popular-opinion-leading QB, he ran a slow developing run to Josh Jacobs, followed by a wide receiver screen and a HB screen. All said, the Tide went backwards 14 yards before Skylar DeLong punted out of the endzone. It was a short punt, but a good bounce got it up to a 51-yard punt on the stat book.

After a short A&M field goal, set up by a first down from another Kellen Mond scramble, Tua completed back-to-back 20 yard passes to Jerry Jeudy and Irv Smith. A couple of run plays got another first down, and then Locksley pulled out one of the most well designed play-actions I’ve seen yet. The Tide lined up in the shotgun and Tagovailoa faked a toss to the running back (the kind of play we saw LSU run all the time with Leonard Fournette a few years ago). He pulled back, then lofted an easy score to a wide open Hale Hentges, who had been pretending to block only a second earlier, who walked into the endzone to make it 28-13.

Another Aggie field goal was set up by ANOTHER Kellen Mond 30 yard scramble (seeing a theme here? Saban is gonna have a field day with this), and Alabama received the ball again with 2 minutes left in the half. After a weird delay of game (I’m still not sure anyone knows why it was called), a couple of short plays had Alabama in a 3rd and 7. Even if the fans were starting to feel a little bit of pressure at this point, Tua wasn’t. He calmly checked down and tossed the ball down the right sideline to Damien Harris on a wheel route, who then mentally juked the defender by never actually juking back inside and slipped down the sideline for a 54 yard gain. A couple of plays later, Tua rolled left and hit Hentges (again!) coming across on a crosser route for another touchdown. This one was more covered, but they still made it look easy.

Kellen Mond then ran a couple more times for another first down, but the broke the trend. Instead of driving up for a field goal, he chunked a deep post route down the field. It might have been a good play call, except that Pat Surtain II ran the post route faster than the receiver did, and made an over-the-shoulder fingertip catch, and returned it 20 yards. After a 17 yard pass to Henry Ruggs, Nick Saban elected to attempt a 47 yard field goal on the last play of the half, rather than taking a shot at the endzone. And Joseph Bulovas rewarded that by drilling it right down the uprights. Who was Austin Jones again?

After trading a couple more punts to open the second half, Tua took the Tide on another 7-play, 80-yard drive, consisting of a 42-yard catch and run from Irv Smith and a 21-yard strike to Jerry Jeudy. The scoring play was a 3-yard off-tackle run to the left side from Josh Jacobs, who walked in so untouched he almost looked disappointed.

Kellen Mond came back and put together a nice 10 play drive of a bunch of short-to-mid-range passes that ultimately ended in a field goal to cut the lead to 22 points. After three and outs from both teams, Alabama got the ball back with 2:15 left in the third quarter. Damien Harris ran between Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills (who had one of the best blocks I’ve seen) for a 34 yard gain. Then the very next play was a Lane Kiffin Special. After a play fake to the running back, Tagovailoa popped the ball forward all of 11 inches to Henry Ruggs for a jet sweep that he took 57 yards down the left sideline. It ultimately counts as passing touchdown for Tua, which, while disingenuous, likely will add to his stats for the post season award campaigns.

The rest of the game was just a classic example of Nick Saban trying to run out the clock and end it. A&M did get a late touchdown after Kellen Mond made Dylan Moses look silly on a QB run, but it didn’t really matter to anyone except the betters. Jalen Hurts and the second team offense got a couple of drives, and most of the second team defense got a few plays in as well.

All in all, there’s not much to criticize about the Tide after this one, aside from the gaffs in letting Kellen Mond scramble. Most of those came from defensive linemen breaking their blocks and going for the sack, only to watch him slip right by and scamper downfield uninhibited. It’s one of those frustrating things that will likely have Saban reigning them in for a few games to play the dreaded “mush rush” until they can prove that they can finish a sack without getting beat upfield. However, the rest of the A&M run game was held to 10 carries for 32 yards, while the pass defense racked up 6 sacks and 2 interceptions, while holding Mond to under 50% completion and a paltry 5.9 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, aside from the 3rd quarter 30-yard scamper from Damien Harris, the Aggie defense absolutely sold out to stop the Alabama rushing game. In the past, that might have been enough to put some pressure on the Crimson Tide. But in the year of 2018, selling out to stop the run only means that Tua Tagovailoa goes 22/30 for 387 yards and 4 touchdowns (in only 3 quarters). The craziest part about that is the he really didn’t even look as sharp as we’ve seen him. He missed a few throws that should have been easy completions, and still wound up with one of the best QB performances we’ve ever seen in the Nick Saban era. Jerry Jeudy was still his most trusted target, and Devonte Smith was his go-to deep threat. Irv Smith also got enough targets to make OJ Howard jealous, and Henry Ruggs got a few chances to make plays with the ball in his hands. And on top of all of them, TE Hale Hentges wound up leading them all with 2 touchdowns.

It just goes to show how good Tua has been at distributing the ball all around to keep the defenses from keying in on any one player. It has to be rather terrifying for the upcoming 8 defensive coordinators prepping to study Alabama film for the rest of the regular season.

Nick Saban said after the game that he wanted the media to focus on some of the mistakes the team made so as to avoid the rat poison, so I’ll point out that, aside from his coffin corner punt that pinned A&M on their own endzone, Skylar DeLong was rather terrible the rest of the game. He shanked a couple of punts— one only going for 11 yards. That, along with the lackluster scramble defense and neutralized run game, make up the bulk of complaints I could come up with. But when all is said and done, it didn’t matter. Alabama just utterly annihilated a top 25 team on the arm of Heisman-frontrunner QB.

Oh, and Alabama has a kicker. The Death Star is finally fully operational.

Roll Tide!