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Initial Impressions: Alabama surprisingly downs New Mexico State

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The Tide didn’t cover the spread, though, so the Aggies made it a tight game

NCAA Football: New Mexico State at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, Alabama was favored to win this game by 55 points, as the New Mexico State Aggies are a team in contention for possibly the weakest in all of FBS. We expected the Tide to cruise.

But two touchdowns* the first two times an Alabama player touched the ball? Seriously?

*The second wound up not counting as Jaylen Waddle’s punt return was called back for a block in the back.

The opening play of the game was a swing pass to Henry Ruggs III, who sprinted down the sideline with his famed 4.3 speed for 75 yards. It did wind up being a backwards pass, so it counted as a run instead of adding free yards to Tua Tagovailoa’s stats. Oh well. There goes the Heisman.

Instead, give that Heisman to Jerry Jeudy. The man finished the day with 8 catches for 103 yards and 3 touchdowns, the first of which came on a beautiful 21 yard throw to the corner of the endzone to cap off Alabama’s second drive as Tua picked apart the Aggie defense with 15-20 yard strikes to Devonta Smith and Jeudy all the way down the field.

The Alabama defense continued to absolutely stymie the Aggies, but the offense short circuited a little after the first two drives, following up those fireworks with back-to-back three and outs. The Alabama run game (excluding Ruggs’ opening “run”) was generally pretty pathetic as the offensive line struggled to open holes and running backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson missed the holes that did open.

Center Chris Owens sat out this game (being a senior gives a little more leeway when dealing with a minor injury), so Landon Dickerson moved to center and Matt Womack came it at right guard. The shuffling definitely didn’t do the offensive line any favors, but they also didn’t show any real improvement from last week against Duke. In their defense, though, New Mexico State was actually a top-20 team in sack rate last year, and returned both defensive ends. They aren’t good at much else, but they are good at rushing the QB.

The next drive saw Xavier McKinney (who, due to the four-wide base offense of NM State, basically played linebacker all game) force a fumble in the middle of the line of scrimmage, which was recovered by freshman linebacker Shane Lee. The Tide responded to the possession change with a couple of good runs (!!!) from Najee Harris before Tua put a nail in the coffin by firing a 23-yard bullet to Jeudy in the back of the endzone on his 3rd read. Seriously, check out the highlight and watch Tua’s eyes and pocket movement. That’s the kind of QB play that’s going to have him playing a LOOOONG time in the NFL.

The next drive was back to Ruggs, who caught a 39-yarder on the first play before a couple of short runs and an illegal procedure penalty stalled the offense into a 3rd and long. Then Tua went back to Ruggs on back to back plays to pick of the first and then score his 2nd TD of the day on an easy slant route.

The next drive from the Aggies actually started to move the ball on Alabama’s defense for the first time in the game as they clawed their way forward for 36 yards on 8 plays, but it wound up with Pat Surtain II getting a leaping pick down the field after the Aggie QB lofted a wounded duck of a pass while getting hit by a blitzing McKinney.

Following this, Tagovailoa completed some nice passes to Waddle, Najee Harris, and Jerry Jeudy in quick succession to glide right back down the field into scoring range. On a second and five play, both Womack and Neal got whipped at the line of scrimmage, but, rather than being daunted by the pass rush, our wonderful QB stepped up past the two rushers and then scampered through their vacated holes and running away from the waiting linebacker on his way to a 25-yard score.

He even gave a little baby stiff arm (Heisman is coming back to him!) at the end.

After the ensuing Aggie 3-and-out (made possible from Terrell Lewis and LaBryan Ray nearly eviscerating the soul of their QB), Jaylen Waddle ran about 200 total yards to make a 24 yard punt return. The Alabama offense couldn’t get the first down, but were close enough to trot out the dreaded field goal team.

Will Reichard lined up where the two different uprights were, decided not to aim for either one, and nailed a 48 yard field goal that got the loudest cheer of the day in Bryant-Denny.

Halftime score: 38-0.

Alabama’s first drive of the second half saw Saban trying to force the offense to remember how to run the ball effectively. Brian Robinson did manage to move the ball pretty well down the field, and the drive was ultimately capped off by a 19-yard sweep play to Najee Harris, who jogged into the endzone untouched (it was a pretty big hole. Technically.)

That was Tua Tagovailoa’s last drive.

The Aggies did score a touchdown on their next possession, when Josh Jobe was blocked by the referee on a slant route as the wide receiver raced 44 yards down the field. He was caught from behind before scoring by Trevon Diggs, who came flying from the other side of the field. Unfortunately, Diggs ran a little too fast and exited the game with cramps. Running back Jason Huntley juked both Shyhiem Carter and Shane Lee with the same move a couple of plays later for the touchdown.

The next drive saw Mac Jones complete a few easy passes to the receivers before Jerry Jeudy broke about 5 tackles to slip into the endzone for the third time in the game.

After that, the Tide was mostly trying to run clock. True freshman running back Keilan Robinson actually took the ball 74 yards for a score on his very first carry, outracing the entire New Mexico State defense. That dude has some jets. And Reichard kicked a 49-yard field goal, again, right down the middle. Is it too soon to crown him the best Alabama kicker since Leigh Tiffin?

The Aggies final drive saw them chew up nearly 8 minutes on 15 plays against the Alabama second string defense. Pete Golding was visibly frustrated on the sidelines at the backups’ performance, but the group wound up making a goal line stand as time expired. The post game interview with Nick Saban saw the coach smiling even wider than he has after winning a few different championship games. The reserves showing some fortitude at the end of a game is just the kind of thing that really gets the coach going.

Final score was 62-10, and Alabama just missed covering the spread.

This team will go as Tua Tagovailoa and the receivers go. He’s as good a college QB as you’ll see, and his pocket presence has improved exponentially from last year (and he was already good at avoiding rushers). The wide receivers, all four of them, are nearly uncoverable, almost never drop anything, and might be even better after the catch than they are before it.

On the other hand, the run game is at two games in a row (against bad football teams) of looking very inefficient. Were it not from big runs from K. Robinson and Jerome Ford at the end of the games (plus Ruggs’ screen pass), the numbers would look really bleak. The offensive line is struggling to get much push, and the starting running backs aren’t doing them many favors by missing holes and not breaking tackles. Hopefully that gets shored up as the offense gets more time together.

On defense, it’s hard to point out any weaknesses yet (but neither Duke nor NM State had the horses to really challenge them). Terrell Lewis looks like an All-Pro NFL pass rusher now that he’s finally healthy, and Anfernee Jennings looks twice as fast as he did last year on the opposite side. If those two can avoid injury, they’re going to be the best pass rush Alabama’s seen since Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson were the bookends.

Shane Lee looks like a junior, not a freshman, out there at linebacker, and his running mate, Christian Harris, is about as explosive as they come.

In the secondary, Diggs and Surtain are looking like top-tier corners, and safety Xavier McKinney just might wind up being the best player on Alabama’s defense. He’s fast, has great ball skills, and hits harder than most linebackers.

Again, the level of competition has to be considered, but Alabama’s starting defense looks MUCH better than I think any of us expected.

Next week is South Carolina, who all of a sudden has a freshman phenom at QB, so the secondary and pass rush will actually be put to a real test. Until then, enjoy the win, and Roll Tide!