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Initial Impressions: Alabama Dismantles Michigan in the Citrus Bowl

Maybe, just maybe, the reports of the demise of the dynasty were premature?

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Alabama Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

We spend four months of every single year yelling and fretting at our TVs for four hours every Saturday and obsessing over any little rumor all week between games. It’s crazy. It’s not productive. And we love it.

But we often forget that we love it, and that we invest so much time and energy into following this stupid sport because it’s fun. Stressing over the minutia in the game can make eventual successes even sweeter, but for Alabama fans, the year of 2019 has been one of frustrated disappointment.

Sure, you’ve heard people tell you you’re spoiled/entitled/etc. for feeling disappointed that your team made it to a National Championship game and still got 10 wins in the following season. That doesn’t make those frustrations any less valid, though, and it hurt seeing our favorite players having season ending injury after season ending injury while the rest of America’s fans piled on reveled in the fact that Alabama wasn’t perfect.

We saw Alabama’s defense slip from their age-old standards of dominance this season, while a record-breaking offense with the firepower thats like hasn’t been seen in college football since probably the 2004 USC team ultimately wound up hamstrung as the best quarterback in college football was helicoptered in to a hospital after a devastating hip injury.

That was followed up by a loss to the most frustrating program in college football on a series of ridiculous moments, and suddenly all was over. Alabama was officially out of contention for anything important, and to add insult to injury, was ranked #13 in the nation.

We all viewed this bowl game as a chance for Alabama to prove they weren’t who the nation said they were and a potential springboard for capturing a dominant mindset for 2020, but we also feared that the team would struggle to motivate themselves after such pervasive disappointment.

And, well, if you choose to take the hopeful approach, this game wound up being a rather poetic microcosm for Alabama’s program as a whole. The game opened up with an 85 yard bomb to Jerry Jeudy, scoring on the first play, just as the Tide’s offense scored so quickly and often on everyone they played, particularly early in the season. Unfortunately, though, the defense just didn’t have what it took up front to get stops as the Michigan Wolverines gashed them over and over again in the run game.

Things only got worse as the Alabama offense was determined to shoot themselves in the foot with repeated screen passes that obviously didn’t work and an onslaught of false start penalties, and it looked like Michigan just might run away with the game, despite one more superman-style leaping score from Najee Harris. Especially after their mostly unimpressive kicker drilled a 57-yard field goal to end the half.

It’s a kick that NFL kickers rarely make, good college kickers almost never make, and normal to below average college kickers just don’t make. But, this is Alabama, and their opponents did not miss a single field goal the entire season. Sometimes, you just have to tip your hat to the forces of nature and laugh.

And man if that first half didn’t feel exactly like all of the 2019 season in an hour and a half. I was ready to fire every assistant coach on the team and start over fresh next year. As always, though, we take the results of just a few plays in a football game and extrapolate them over the rest of the game, season, and even multi-year impressions of programs.

Instead of doing the exact same thing in the second half, Alabama adjusted. Instead of continuing to attack a brick wall with a middling screen game, Mac Jones took a deep shot to DeVonta Smith for a touchdown to get Alabama the lead back.

The Tide defense, amidst all the angst of us fans, did a total 180, forcing back-to-back punts with only 18 total yards while stopping run plays, breaking up passes, and even notching a sack on a well-timed safety blitz (There you go Pete Golding! Scheme up some pressure when the front 4 aren’t getting to the QB).

The Tide offense similarly struggled to get out of their own way in the resulting drives though, and it felt all the world like the game might just go back to how we were expecting after the first half.

Michigan’s next drive chewed up 7 minutes of game time over 14 plays as they continued to convert third down after third down despite Alabama having them in position to end it the drive every single set of downs. As they moved further and further down the field, the despair in the Alabama fanbase was palpable, whether in your living room, local sports bar, or just on Twitter.

Michigan, the annoying and overrated program with an annoying an overrated coach, was going drive a stake through Alabama’s heart and entire identity of a decade— their defense— and ice away a supposedly meaningless game that would project into the next era of Alabama Football.

That was, until Shane Lee, the freshman linebacker who’s taken the brunt of fan criticism all season for various ailments on defense, shot through the line of scrimmage on firstdown, sacking QB Shea Patterson and knocking the ball out of his hands. The Wolverines recovered the fumble, but it knocked them out of field goal range and they wound up punting to pin Alabama inside their own ten.

After multiple drives going nowhere, Mac Jones and crew had had enough. On third down in his own endzone, Jones fired a 10-yard out to Jerry Jeudy with pressure in his face, moving the chains and getting some breathing room. But rather than taking the time to gather their breath, Jones plunged right back in, deftly avoiding getting hit in the pocket and launching a pass deep down the field while getting sandwhiched by two defenders. Jeudy sprinted past the traffic in the middle of the field and beat everyone to the ball, then raced 58 yards down the field.

It was a phenomenal catch and run for Jeudy as he showcased his speed, but Jones seeing that Jeudy would be able to get to that spot on the field while getting smacked by multiple pass rushers was just preternatural anticipation from the sophomore QB.

Following that, Mac faked a wheel route to Najee Harris (whose reputation drew double coverage, including one of the two tackling him on the route rather than give up the touchdown), and instead fired a dart to TE Miller Forristall, brand new voicebox and all, who lumbered into the endzone between two defenders like a tree falling through the nearby underbrush.

Three passes. 92 yards. And Mac Jones was on top of the world.

If that kind of enthusiasm doesn’t get you fired up, nothing will.

Alabama shut the Wolverines down on their next two drives, with senior defensive back Shyheim Carter intercepting Shea Patterson deep down the field. The Tide was up 12 points with about 6.5 minutes left, but many fans still worried that a 4th quarter collapse could still doom the Tide.

Instead, Najee Harris, who Michigan recruited harder than anyone else in 2017, picked up his scythe an harvested the souls of every Wolverine defender in Orlando. Harris ripped off runs of 19, 16, and 12 yards as he drug and fought his way through dogpiles of at least 5 defenders on each run. It was the kind of pure force of will that Alabama’s seen from guys like Trent Richardson and Derrick Henry in the past as he just utterly and absolutely refused to let any part of his body touch the ground.

Alabama got to the endzone and could have kneeled and turned the ball over on downs with only a few seconds left, but Nick Saban, who very obviously cares not for Michigan or their coach, allowed Najee the chance to close out his already superhuman drive and put every big man on the team in front of him to lead block. With about 2500 pounds of blocker in front of him, Harris barrelled into the endzone for his second touchdown of the day.

That final drive covered 75 yards in 6 minutes, with Najee Harris getting 70 of those on 11 carries. Dominant, soul-crushing, and ruthless.

But instead of ending the game with only one second left and down three scores, Jim Harbaugh decided to risk the injuries of 22 players with a hail mary pass as time expired.

No matter. Backup cornerback Josh Jobe, who is auditioning for a starting job in 2020 and performed admirably in place of Trevon Diggs today, intercepted the ball in the endzone.

Game over. 35-16 Alabama.

Alabama struggled, but with halftime adjustments that were long overdue, they totally shut down the Michigan offense in the second half and had both an explosive passing drive for a score and a back-breaking running drive to finish the game with a defiant statement.

This season may not have gone as Alabama and their fans wanted, but 2020 is coming. And this is not a program that has forgotten their identity.

Other thoughts:

  • Jerry Jeudy’s 200 yard night is the perfect example of a bowl game giving a player a chance to boost his stock. The junior was projected to be a top-5 pick earlier this season, but cooled off later in the year. He proved today that he’s not just a great route-runner. He’s got hands, and he’s a lot faster than given credit for.
  • Najee Harris, too, continued his utterly dominant 2nd half of the season. It seems he’s just now finally got into the groove we all knew he would, and, should he choose to go pro, it will be over all too soon for Alabama fans.
  • Mac Jones also played a mostly brilliant game. My biggest concern when Tua Tagovailoa first got injured was that, while Mac had a good arm, he might be subject to panicking under pressure. Instead, we’ve seen him make pass after pass as he’s getting hit in the last couple of games. He’s still prone to randomly misfiring at times, but aside from that, he’s proven to be not just a capable QB, but an explosive one.
  • Despite the fact that it felt like Alabama was getting gashed over and over in the run game early on, Michigan wound up with an average of only 3.8 yards per rush. Christian Harris had one bad miss, but also had a couple of emphatic tackles for loss and even chased down a receiver on crossing route to make the tackle. The freshman definitely had plenty of struggles throughout the season, but that kind of explosiveness coupled with more experience is going to make him an absolute monster at linebacker the next 2-3 years.
  • Josh Jobe played an awesome game. Michigan’s first play of the game was a deep shot on the cornerback in his first start since the season opener, and Jobe broke it up. Even more impressive was his 6 tackles, including one where he made a tackle on the running back in a one-on-one in the open field to prevent a first down. After Alabama’s issues the last two seasons with cornerbacks in run support, Jobe is going to be breath of fresh air in 2020.
  • And just how good is Xavier McKinney? The safety led the team with 10 tackles and shut down a number of TE wheels and deeper passes on crafty routes that would have toasted most college-level defenders. He’s fast, instinctive, and hits hard. I’d love to have him back in 2020, but if he goes pro, some team is going to get a steal if he falls out of the first round.
  • Chris Allen was mostly invisible in replacing Terrell Lewis as an edge rusher, but he did make one awesome play where he pushed his blocker all the way down the line of scrimmage and forced the running back out of bounds on a speed sweep where Allen was basically on his own on that side of the field. Even if he doesn’t develop as a pass rusher, he still looks to factor as nice run-stopping piece for the defense next year.
  • Other than the false starts, this was probably the cleanest game, penalty-wise, Alabama had all season. Saban definitely emphasized that over the December break.

Ultimately, Alabama almost doubled Michigan in a yards per play output. The Wolverines ran a lot more plays than the Tide did, but Alabama’s defense got stronger as the game went on, not weaker. Which makes me feel good about their mental toughness and conditioning going forward if they can prevent the early game lapses in tackling and positioning (an issue of being overly nervous early on? Unprepared for the opposing offense? I don’t know)

It wasn’t the year we wanted as Alabama fans. Things didn’t go as we expected. However, the second half of this game gave me tremendous hope for 2020 going forward, especially with such a strong recruiting class coming in to bolster the defense’s weakest position couple with Dylan Moses surprisingly announcing his decision to return for his senior year.

And this offense, whether helmed by Mac Jones, Bryce Young, or, dare we hope, Tua Tagovailoa, is going to be among the nation’s most explosive next year as well.

Roll Tide!