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Initial Impressions: Alabama Roasts Razorbacks, Rotisserie-Style

Alabama defeats overmatched Arkansas squad 48-7, kicks off new QB controversy

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Alabama Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

With Tua Tagovailoa ailing from the most publicized ankle surgery in world history*, Alabama started a game with the backup QB for the first time since Nick Saban took over in 2007. It’s been a tremendous streak of good fortune for the Tide, and it had to end eventually.

*this is not a proven fact, just my subjective opinion of history. Which is how history works these days anyway.

Amidst much hand-wringing from Alabama fans over the past week, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian put together a masterful offensive game plan to ease QB Mac Jones into the game with a number of quick screens and slants with minimal pressure before transitioning into some deeper passes as he warmed up and settled in.

Arkansas started with the ball after the Tide won the coin flip, and were quickly put into a 3rd and long situation with the Tide run defense making back to back stops. Unfortunately, someone busted a coverage (I think Markail Benton decided to rush the QB when he scrambled right, rather than cover the wheel route, but I can’t be sure that was defensive call) and the Razorbacks picked up 22 yards on what was the first of many 3rd down conversions on the night. Right after that, though, the defense held tight again and forced a punt after Anfernee Jennings tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage.

The opening drive for the Tide saw a run for Najee Harris, followed by a jet sweep to Jerry Jeudy, then repeated with another Harris run and a jet sweep to DeVonta Smith. Alabama doubled down on the run game, and Najee rewarded them with 3 solid runs in a row, and a screen to Jeudy set them up just outside of the Arkanasas redzone. That’s when Mac was given his first attempt at a real pass, and he threaded one just over the shoulder of a defender on a crossing route to Miller Forristall. The drive stalled in the redzone after that, though, and Alabama settled for an easy field goal. In a crazy turn of events, the ball went between the two posts, and Joseph Bulovas walked off the field a champion of the people.

Arkansas hit three quick nice plays, including a 15 yard pass where Anfernee Jennings somehow ended up trying to cover a wide receiver on a crossing route, but the wheels fell off that wagon when a slightly high snap was too much for QB Nick Starkel to bring down, and, after bouncing around a little bit, was picked up by true freshman linebacker Christian Harris, who raced down the field for 37 yards before getting run down by Arkansas receiver, Treylon Burks.

On the very next play, Mac Jones scrambled to the right and threw a dart to DeVonta Smith in the endzone. The ball was a little high, but placed nearly perfectly to Smith between a couple of defenders. Smith, though, felt that he’d been getting too many targets the last few weeks, and prophetically allowed the ball to slip between his hands so that Henry Ruggs III, who was waiting behind everyone, could score the touchdown. It was such brilliant foresight and spatial awareness from Smith that even the referees didn’t understand how it happened, and initially ruled the ball incomplete. But, in accordance to prophecy, it was correctly overturned and ruled a touchdown. Thank God for replay.

Alabama’s defense stuffed a few more runs and gave up one first down on a swing pass to the running back (shocker). Then Xavier McKinney showed why he’s being considered for All-American awards by breaking on a slant by the running back and breaking up a pass that likely would have been a first down. Even better was the fact that Jennings took all 260-pounds of his boulder-like body and dove face first into the dirt to add an interception to his impressive career at Alabama. It was a play like the Alabama defenses of old, and boy was it nice to see.

With a short field to work with, Najee Harris continued to pick and juke his way through traffic for 27 yards on two runs. Seriously, Harris is such an interesting running back. On one hand, I’m not sure he’s ever broken a single run for a long TD in his career, but his knack for picking his way through the scrum of the line of scrimmage without losing balance and grinding out 5-7 yards right down the middle without actually taking big hits is awesome to watch. It’s for that reason that the Tide went into this week the #2 team in the nation in rushing success rate, despite the gnashing of teeth from Alabama fans the first few weeks of the season.

Anyway, a screen pass to Jerry Jeudy finished off the drive with a 14-yard touchdown, and the 17-0 Alabama lead was looking more and more like a death knell for the Razorbacks without a divine change of fortune.

Like with lottery, there was no change in fortune.

The Tide defense forced another punt with a couple of nice pass breakups from Jennings and cornerback Trevon Diggs.

Jones ran the Tide’s staple RPO slant play, and calmly tossed the ball right over the blitzing safety’s head to DeVonta Smith, who took the ball 47 yards before being tackled. A few plays later, Najee Harris plunged into the endzone for the Tide’s 4th score on as many drives.

Hey, maybe the Razorbacks still had a chance to make things respectable? Their kick return man, with shades of glory in his eyes, fielded the kickoff at the two yard line and promptly went out of bounds. Nice.

Three plays later, they were punting back to Alabama, and Jones threw some nice balls down the field to Jeudy and Ruggs for 24 and 18 yards, respectively. It was a really short field from the rather idiotic kick return attempt earlier, so Harris quickly punched in another 1-yard TD run, and the game was effectively over.

It looked like Alabama was going to get another 3 and out, but for the 79th time this season, the other team was bailed out by a penalty on 3rd down. Linebacker Terrell Lewis, though, was really getting into the groove of the game at this point. He tipped a screen pass at the line of scrimmage, and then got back to back QB hurries to force bad passes. Lewis basically shut down the opposing offense three plays in a row. He was a monster the entire first half. In the current state of football, if you have a QB that can make plays against blitzes and a pass rusher that can consistently disrupt drives, you’ll win a LOT of games. If Lewis continues to play like he has the last two weeks, Alabama won’t lose a game.

A huge screen pass to DeVonta Smith wound up being called back by a very ticky-tack (and totally unnecessary) holding on Jeudy, and Smith fell on his shoulder at the end of it. He went out and never returned, and was seen on the sidelines with a sling on his arm in the second half. For the first time all night, over 100,000 people at Bryant-Denny Stadium were privy to see walk-on Ty Perine punt the ball. The kick didn’t hit quite as solidly as his artillery shots last week, but he got a nice bounce and wound up credited with a 49-yard punt. Again, it was probably the loudest cheer all night.

Two plays later, Lewis again was right in the QB’s face as he attempted Alabama’s defensive bugaboo for the last 7 years— the backshoulder fade. This time, though, there was no Mike Evans, Kevin White, or Justyn Ross, and Patrick Surtain II is no Brad Sylve. Surtain stopped, undercut the receiver, and won the jump the ball, and returned it 24 yards.

After a 13-yard run from Harris, the Alabama offense stalled out this time, and settled for (gasp) another field goal. And (double gasp), it went in.

After such a dominant start to the game, the Alabama rushing defense backed off a little, and gave up 2 first downs on 4 straight run plays, followed by yet another penalty to move the chains. An incomplete pass and a 7-yard rush put them at a manageable 3rd and 3.

Starkel called for the snap, and Terrell Lewis shot out of his stance like Starkel had a box of honey buns. Lewis knocked the offensive tackle back four yards and then spun inside before Starkel had even completed his drop. Lewis extended his prehistoric wingspan as he closed in, and Starkel lobbed the ball down the right sideline mere nanoseconds before he was scooped up and taken to a nest of baby pterodactyls nearby. In a decade of those kinds of plays turning into YOLO passes for first downs, Trevon Diggs was having none of it. He switched off of one man in his zone and undercut the throw, intercepting it and racing 84 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.

With the score 41-0 at halftime, the game was over, and honestly should have just been called a mercy rule right then. Najee Harris twisted his ankle on the first play of the second half, and never came back into the game. Mac Jones did his best to outshine Tua and get off the field as soon as possible. He launched a 40-yard bomb to Jeudy in-stride for a touchdown, and the first drive of the second half was his last.

After that, it was all a mind-numbing attempt to just run clock. Taulia Tagovailoa got to attempt a few passes, Jaylen Waddle went all Barry Sanders on Arkansas on a 3rd down play to get the first, and Ben Davis (!) appeared on the punt team, only to get an offsides (-_-) and extend the drive, leading to the only Arkansas points of the night. In fact, the Razorbacks only had 3 possessions in the entire second half, and aside from the one extended by Davis’s mistake (it went 85 yards on 13 plays), their other two drives only gained a total of 6 yards.

Over the course of the game, the Razorbacks only had 2 total drives go for over 30 yards, and one of those ended with a pick-six. The Alabama defense came to play tonight.


Thoughts:

  • What a great time for a bye week. On top of the injuries Alabama has already been dealing with all season, Jared Mayden, Shyheim Carter, Evan Neal, Landon Dickerson, Najee Harris, and DeVonta Smith all sustained new injuries. Saban addressed them all in his press conference, and expects all of them to be good to go later this week at worst.
  • That said, I was really impressed with Emil Ekiyor stepping in for Neal at left guard. And losing Dickerson later on wasn’t that big of a deal, considering Chris Owens has been the starter at center most of the season anyway. All that shuffling early on came in handy with getting guys experience.
  • And with Jared Mayden not playing, we saw a lot of Daniel Wright and Jordan Battle at safety. Wright seemed fine, but also mostly invisible. Battle, on the other hand, was awesome. He made a number of one-on-one tackles in open field. I’m this close to openly campaigning for him to pass up Mayden for the starting safety spot.
  • Speaking of true freshmen, Christian Harris continues to impress with his run-stops. He’s explosive enough to blow up blockers and stop running backs in their tracks.
  • His running mates at middle linebacker, Shane Lee and Markail Benton, had some struggles though. Both got beat to the sidelines multiple times. It’s interesting that those two get the nod on passing downs while Harris is primarily in on base downs, particularly when you consider that Harris played cornerback in high school. Just gotta believe the coaches see something in practice that we don’t.
  • I mentioned it earlier, but I want to reemphasize that Terrell Lewis becoming a consistent elite pass rusher could single-handledly change this defense from just above average to very, very good. There’s a reason that QBs and pass rushers are the highest paid positions in the pros. Top players at those positions single-handedly change games more than any other position.
  • Mac Jones looked a lot more comfortable when he wasn’t thrown into the game unexpectedly. However, I’m not sure we could get away with that many conservative, lateral passes against someone not named Arkansas if Tua isn’t ready to go. Jones did throw some nice balls down field later on, but he didn’t exactly deal with much pressure from an inept Arkansas pass rush.
  • Alabama had a bunch more penalties, and Arkansas wasn’t flagged a single time. So much for refs all being in Alabama’s pocketbook.
  • Fan favorite Ty Perine actually had a better punt average than he did last week, but it’s a bit misleading. He didn’t hit either punt all that well, but both had a heavy topspin and luckily got forward bounces that chewed up a bunch of yards.

Anyway, on to the bye week. The next two weeks have to focus on getting players healthy, and working on tackling on the perimeter, especially against the LSU receivers that are breaking as many tackles as the Alabama receivers are. Until then, enjoy your time off.

Roll Tide!