Sure, Alabama was favored by a sizeable sum against the overmatched Southern Miss Golden Eagles, but that didn’t stop Tide fans from worrying about their beloved, limping defense coming into a game against a passing offense that has proven capable of being one of the most explosive in the nation over the past two seasons.
After Alabama’s defensive leaked nearly 500 yards against South Carolina (though, again, that was a LOT of short plays that never materialized into points), they tightened up back home in Tuscaloosa and locked down Southern Miss to only 226 total yards and 15 total first downs (along with no plays longer than 37 yards, and only four plays longer than 15 yards).
Southern Miss opened the game with a couple of horizontal passes to try and spread the defense out, but safeties Xavier McKinney and Jordan Battle (who continues to be a starting defensive back) made back-to-back tackles at the line of scrimmage by themselves in open space. After the plethora of missed tackles last week, that opening sequence was a breath of fresh air.
In response, Tua Tagovailoa distributed a couple of balls to Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy, and then Ruggs settled down in a short zone in the middle of the field for an easy pitch from Tua that he took for 45 yards for the game’s opening touchdown.
Another weekend, another Ruggs highlight. pic.twitter.com/5WFDJEswOv— ryan (@StillRyanFive) September 21, 2019
To their credit, USM didn’t just roll over, and they hit an 11-yard run and a 21-yard run in back to back plays, only to follow that up with a 4th down conversion. The drive ultimately ended as 9th-year senior Anfernee Jennings, doing his best Henry Ruggs impression, sped untouched up the middle and notched a 14 yard sack and force a punt.
After a couple of nice runs from Najee Harris, who was ferociously attacking the line of scrimmage like it stole his honey bun, Tua dropped back and sailed a pass about 50 yards down the field. Henry Ruggs III, doing his best to top his 24 mph touchdown last week, very nearly outran Tua’s best deep ball, and then had to spin around to catch it. His trailing defender nearly caught him then, but Ruggs STILL managed to speed back up and out run the man.
He’s basically a human cheat code.
The next drive started out promisingly for the Golden Eagles with a couple of good plays, but that quickly ended when QB Jack Abraham lobbed a ball deep down the sideline only for Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs to body his man out and make an over-the-shoulder interception. For what was probably the first time since 2012, an Alabama DB stayed in phase with his receiver down the sideline on a deep throw and managed to locate the ball and get the interception.
If only Diggs had been in for #4 at the end of last season...
The next drive for Alabama went a little longer as they mixed in some short passes and runs to march down the field on an 11-play drive. They did get bailed out on a 3rd down play where Jaylen Waddle was maybe interfered with and he dropped the catch, but the refs made the call and kept the offense alive. Waddle made up for it by going airborne on a 25 yard surgical dissection of the secondary by Tua, and coming down with the ball despite getting hit by two players.
On the ensuing play, Najee Harris briefly faked a pass block before releasing into the flat, and the man covering him raced on ahead towards Tua with visions of glory in his head. Tagovailoa, though, coldly dispatched the ball to Najee in the vacated area for the third touchdown of the game.
After another 3 and out (aided from an emphatic tackle for loss from LB Christian Harris on a stretch run play), Alabama quickly completed a couple of balls to Jeudy and Ruggs to get within 17 yards of scoring again. That’s when Steve Sarkisian remembered his old favorite OJ Howard play: the fake screen wheel route. Jeudy faked a block as Ruggs took a step back and acted like a screen pass was coming to him. An instant later, Jeudy was slithering past the entire secondary for an easy touchdown.
Alabama with a nicely executed PA smoke screen ‘and wheel’ from inside the redzone here. The threat of Ruggs’ speed & playmaking ability opens up Jeudy over the top. It becomes ‘pick your poison’ when playing these guys. *Also an easy wrinkle to add to a HS Offense. pic.twitter.com/BhKg0TYEUo— Matt Garfield (@CoachGarfield1) September 21, 2019
USM followed that up with a couple of first downs, but ultimately the drive ended on a sack credited to Shane Lee, but was really made by Chris Allen and Raekwon Davis. After a couple more good runs from Najee Harris, Miller Forristall was tackled for no gain a short pass and then Tua misfired for the first time in the game, nearly throwing an interception on a slant to Jeudy. Thankfully, the pass was so bad that it hit the ground just before the defender grabbed it.
Skyler DeLong took as much time to punt as an old lady making a left turn across traffic and nearly got his punt blocked, but he did manage to get it off for an unimpressive 36 yards. With only a few minutes left in the half a lot of bad happened for the Tide. Abraham threw a ball down the left sideline, where the diminutive speedster of a running back, De’Michael Harris, was outrunning Anfernee Jennings on a wheel route. How Alabama wound up with a 260-pound pass rusher trying to cover a 180-pound converted wide receiver is a mystery to me, but it wound up gaining a total of 52 yards after Josh Jobe hit the guy as he was going out of bounds for a 15-yard personal foul.
The next play saw USM pick up another first with a very blatant pick play being ignored, and the on the very next play, freshman defensive tackle DJ Dale rolled his ankle and missed the rest of the game. After his injury, the Eagles got away with another pick play, though less blatant than the first, as Christian Harris was kept from covering D. Harris on another wheel route.
Alabama received the ball with 55 seconds to go and 3 timeouts. Considering they’ve been scoring in less than 2 minutes all season anyway, getting a 5th touchdown before halftime shouldn’t have been too much of a problem. However, Tua scrambled for 9 yards on the first play, took a coverage sack on the second, and then threw the ball away under pressure on the third.
Despite playing nearly flawlessly for most of the half, Alabama went into the locker room with a little bit of a bitter taste.
The opening drive of the second half, however, had Najee Harris rumbling for a couple more chunk gains, and huge 35-yard catch and run from Jeudy, and finally a 20-yard slant to Jeudy that turned into yet another touchdown.
Tua to Jeudy for 36 yards pic.twitter.com/i4aFo4Yz4e— #BusinessAintBoomin (@ftbeard_17) September 21, 2019
Tua to Jeudy for the 20 yard TD! pic.twitter.com/Qv2yCusS0o— #BusinessAintBoomin (@ftbeard_17) September 21, 2019
Jerry Jeudy is just soooo good at football.
Southern Miss did manage a 25-yard pass down the sideline on the next drive when Xavier McKinney actually ran perfect coverage and beat his man downfield, but the QB got hurried and threw the ball shorter than intended, causing McKinney to miss the interception. Fortunately, a couple of plays later, Phidarian Mathis tomahawk chopped the ball out of the hands of their running back right in the middle of the line of scrimmage, and Jordan Battle made the heads up play to scoop it up after the first bounce.
The following drive was a lot of Brian Robinson running the ball, though Najee Harris did get in for one rush that he took for 17 yards. Robinson capped it off by eschewing a wide open hole in favor of bulldozing his way through the entire USM defense. To each his own, I guess. Either way, he got the touchdown, and after that, Alabama emptied the bench.
Harris and Robinson got a few carries with Mac Jones at QB, and Harris managed to pick up a bad toss sweep from his shoe strings and take it for another 20 yards before sitting down for the day with over 100 rushing yards.
Ultimately, though, Mac threw a slant pass directly into the chest of a defender for Alabama’s first interception of the season. The Golden Eagles were trying to burn clock as much as Alabama at this point, and they managed to kill 6 minutes while only gaining 19 yards (an impressive feat in it’s own right) before punting to Jaylen Waddle, who very nearly got his first special teams score on a 41-yard return.
This time, Taulia Tagovailoa came into the game at QB to try and set the record for consecutive handoffs. However, the Tide faced a 4th and 5 in which they decided to let the younger Tagovailoa have a chance to convert it. He rewarded the coaches by avoiding the pass rush, sprinting to his right, and then lobbing it down the seam to Slade Bolden (who by the way also played a wildcat QB speed option play earlier in the game).
On the final drive, resdshirt freshman defensive lineman Christian Barmore made three straight tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage to make up for his targeting at the end of last week’s game, and that ended the game
Overall, this was about as complete a game as Coach Saban and us fans could have hoped for. Tua Tagovailoa threw more touchdowns than incompletions, Jeudy and Ruggs were dominant while DeVonta Smith and Waddle made some nice plays when needed, and Najee Harris was absolutely dominant between the tackles in the run game. Someone must have talked to Harris about hesitating too much, because he was hitting holes with ferocity all day long and forced at least one missed tackle on nearly ever carry. He averaged an outstanding 7.9 yards per carry for 110 yards— a stat even more impressive when you realized that average wasn’t buoyed up by any huge breakaway runs (his long was 17).
The offensive line blocked well in both the run and pass game, as Tua stayed pretty clean other than one nearly late cheap shot at his back late in the game.
Defensively, Christian Harris played with a lot more confidence and blew up a few run plays, while Shane Lee did a great job covering sideline to sideline. Anfernee Jennings was a demon of a pass rusher whenever USM dropped back to pass, but they ran so many quick horizontal plays that it mostly neutralized any chance of a pass rush. That said, with Terrell Lewis out, Chris Allen did flash a couple of times. However, freshmen Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young were mostly invisible in their effort to replace the injured LaBryan Ray.
Fortunately, the secondary did a much better job this week of making tackles on those shorter passes, and the Golden Eagle offense was pretty much totally contained, outside of that one drive before half time.
DJ Dale went out with an ankle injury and kicker Will Reichard left the game early on with a hip flexor injury. Hopefully neither of those injuries are serious.
Best of all, though, Alabama dropped from double digits in penalties last week to only a single penalty this week. That, coupled with the all-around solid execution and finishing, has to have left Saban as happy as he can be with the results of this game.