Alabama went on the road for the first time this season, to face South Carolina in the SEC opener for both squads, and left with a 24-point victory that included a late garbage time score to make it that close.
As usual, a lot of Alabama fans complained because the other team managed to have some success.
To be sure, while some of the fireworks are just the new normal to which some are still struggling to adjust, there were some issues that have to be addressed. First and foremost, the loss of both inside linebackers was really felt for the first time all season. Funny enough, for this week Josh McMillon may have left a greater void than the one left by Dylan Moses. At his size, Shane Lee would probably never play Will anyway and he has been pretty outstanding. His running mates in this game, though? Woof.
Christian Harris didn’t enroll until the summer and won the job according to Saban for his playmaking ability. We have seen some of that already, and as a former defensive back he has looked strong in coverage. The problem with young inside linebackers is often in the run fits and boy, his were awful. A two-gap run defense is intended to occupy all of the offensive linemen with the defensive front, allowing the linebackers to read and fill. As you might imagine, inexperienced linebackers are going to struggle more in this area. After South Carolina gashed the defense a few times, Ale Kaho was brought in for Harris, but there was little improvement.
A lot of people are talking about the tackling as well, and there were certainly some issues. One of the funnier plays of the season thus far happened early in this one, when Patrick Surtain II was attempting to bring down the load that is 220-lb. Bryan Edwards, only for Harris to inexplicably toss Surtain to the ground. While technique needs to improve and will most certainly be a focus for the staff, having to play the guys who should be backups at the linebacker spots doesn’t help matters. The practice rotation at LB and in the secondary will be something to watch.
The pass defense was actually pretty good in this one. If there is a concern, it’s the inability to get more pressure with four rushers, something that shouldn’t be a problem with Terrell Lewis, Anfernee Jennings, and Raekwon Davis on the field together. Give South Carolina credit: their OL played a nice game. I noted during the contest that Lewis may need to polish up a counter move to his lethal speed rush. The left tackle kept anticipating it and getting out ahead of it, leaving himself vulnerable to a well executed bull rush or spin move. Of course, I also read that he squats 675 lbs. so perhaps he’s just a guy who has been under the radar.
The only really big play that was allowed in the pass game was the first touchdown. Jordan Battle, another true freshman, got turned around on it, but the throw still had to be absolutely perfect. To Ryan Hilinski’s credit, it was. The bulk of Hilinski’s completions were of the underneath variety, and the Tide was playing with a big lead for most of them. The main issue for the defense was third down, where they allowed 44% conversion that increases to 56% with fourth down attempts included. Part of the problem was just Edwards. That man is tough to get on the ground, and he willed at least a couple of those third down conversions with individual effort.
Now for the good news: this offense is otherworldly. After a couple of early lapses in communication against stunts, the offensive line kept Tua Tagovailoa clean for the vast majority of the afternoon. All he did was complete 78% of his 36 throws for 444 yards and five touchdowns. As Saban noted in the postgame press conference, South Carolina was intent on attacking the run game with safeties on the RPOs, so Tua threw the ball behind them. People stomping their feet about the run game still don’t seem to grasp that the short pass is an extension of it. In practice, what is the difference in handing Najee Harris the ball or flipping it to him a couple of yards away? Harris and Brian Robinson combined for 193 total yards on 22 touches. If that isn’t elite production, folks, then I don’t know what is. There are ways to control the football that don’t involve pounding it between the tackles.
Henry Ruggs III got a chance to show off his ridiculous speed when he took an early slant to the house. The last few seconds of that score looked like the last scenes from Secretariat on TV as Ruggs was the only dude on the screen. Devonta Smith was the overall receiving star in this one, hauling in 8/136 and two scores. The Gamecocks clearly focused on Jerry Jeudy, but he still managed 6/68 and the attention he drew is likely responsible for some of his running mates’ production. Poor Jaylen Waddle was the one left out today. Look for him to get his number called early and often next week. Of course, Najee Harris had the highlight of the day when he caught a shallow cross then tossed one defender to the ground and hurdled another on his way to the end zone.
Let’s hope that Will Reichard hasn’t caught the disease after missing a midrange field goal and hitting the upright on an extra point. He’s still striking the ball well and will probably be fine, but that was just too soon. LaBryan Ray is apparently going to be out a while with a bad foot, which just further thins the front seven.
Continue to gnash teeth if you like, but this is our team this year, folks. We are going to light it up through the air with the running backs heavily involved in the passing game, which funny enough is as “pro style” as it gets nowadays. This is going to mean more exposure for an already young and thin defensive front seven, which is going to lead to some yards and points. They will undoubtedly work on tackling and third down strategy, but this team is still going as far as the offense can take it, which from where I sit is likely to be pretty far. Might even get that ugly trophy back.