As expected, the Tide cruised to a lopsided victory over a severely outmanned Duke squad to kick off the 2019 season. After a sluggish, scoreless first quarter, the Tide pulled away for a 42-3 final.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the game for Tide fans was the play of true freshmen Shane Lee and Christian Harris, both forced into starting roles at the critical inside linebacker spots. Neither player was overwhelmed in the least. Both looked outstanding in coverage and tackled well. Lee was washed out a couple of times in the run game, but expecting perfect run fits in the first game would be asking too much. He came up huge on a 4th-and-goal stop early and seemed to do well calling the shots.
While Duke isn’t expected to be able to throw the ball much this season, the secondary looked as advertised. In some previous early season laughers, we’ve seen receivers running ominously free too often, only to have overmatched QBs fail to get the ball to them under duress. That didn’t seem to be the case in this one as a loaded, experienced Alabama secondary had everything on lockdown. Trevon Diggs made a textbook interception in man coverage, undoubtedly conjuring up a little “what might have been” in every Tide fan, at least for a moment, and the same was true when Terrell Lewis knifed through the middle of the line for a sack.
The pass rush was outstanding all night. Anfernee Jennings flashed more speed than we have ever seen from him, which would be a welcomed bonus as he looks fully recovered from the gruesome knee injury suffered in the 2017 CFP semifinals, that literally almost cost him a leg. Raekwon Davis led the defensive line and lived in the Duke backfield. All told, the Tide allowed only 204 total yards on 54 snaps, 11 first downs, and held the Blue Devils to 25% on third downs. It would have been difficult to imagine a more encouraging first game for the defense.
On offense, the passing game was as stellar as you’d expect, but the run game struggled. Duke has a lot of experience in the front seven and threw a ton of stunts at Alabama’s talented but reshuffled line. It was a struggle in the scoreless first quarter, and the run game really never got going as Najee Harris and Brian Robinson combined for a putrid 2.9 yards per carry. There will be plenty of film study for the big uglies this week. Jerome Ford had the most success despite an early fumble, and it’s possible that he gets more work than expected since he’s a little shiftier than the two bigger backs. That came in useful a time or two as he dodged tackles in the backfield. The offensive line should get better as the season rolls on. Only one player, Jedrick Wills, was playing the same position he did last season. Matt Womack replaced LT Alex Leatherwood in the second half. Alex reportedly had someone looking at his hand, but it must not be anything serious since Saban didn’t mention it.
As mentioned, Tua Tagovailoa and the loaded receiving corps did its thing. Duke opted for a zone blitz scheme for most of the night, sitting back in cover three while running games up front in hopes of keeping everything in front. Opting for such a strategy requires the secondary to effectively tackle in space, easier said than done against this group of wideouts. I thought Steve Sarkisian did a great job of scheming to get the ball to his playmakers, and the numbers bear it out. Tua completed 84% of his passes for 10.8 yards per attempt and a Heisman-esque 217 passer rating. Ten of those completions went to Jerry Jeudy for 137 yards and a score. Two more of Tua’s touchdown throws went to tight ends Miller Forristall and Major Tennison, which really just doesn’t seem fair. Henry Ruggs III was the guy who kind of got left out this week with only two grabs, but that will even out as secondaries pick their poison.
It was Will Reichard’s first game as Alabama’s kicker, and he twice hit the upright on difficult 48 and 49 yard attempts from the wide college hash marks. Both kicks were actually struck very well and obviously missed by only a hair, so we shouldn’t be alarmed at this point. All extra points went seamlessly and he was killing the ball on kickoffs, allowing zero returns. Will also handled the punting duties and hit two for a solid 40.5 average.
The only injury of note was backup guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. Saban said that he has some sort of a knee issue that he has had before, and it isn’t usually anything serious. We will wait to hear on him. There was a scare when Jeudy lowered his head toward the end zone, got lit up by several defenders and stayed down, but Saban said he was just cramping. Still, we don’t need you to be a fullback, Jerry. Take care of that soon-to-be multimillion dollar body.
Other than the O-line kinks, it’s really tough to find anything to complain about in this one. The Tide won, covered the spread, and still have a few weeks to get right before facing any legitimate threats.