In some ways, Alabama played one of their best games of the season. At the same time, they made just enough dumb mistakes sprinkled throughout the game to continuously undo some of the great things the accomplished and let Arkansas hang around the entire time.
It’s a trend that’s continued all season for the Tide, and, at this point, can be assumed to just be in the team’s DNA.
They have the talent to overcome those things against anyone in the country... But the margins are razor-thin.
The first quarter saw the Alabama defense playing lights out against Arkansas’s insistence on running the ball, and the offense gutted out a couple of long drives to put up 10 points, including a 98-yarder with John Metchie just dominating the opposing secondary. Two of his catches were big throws on deep corner routes from Bryce Young, but this swing pass was one of my favorites of the game:
Absolutely textbook perimeter blocking by Ja'Corey Brooks on this play to John Metchie— Pete Brown (@pjb_media) November 20, 2021
Blocking like that will earn him more reps on the field big time!! Love it from the freshman#RollTide #ARKvsBAMA pic.twitter.com/wTqVwJYqy8
The play design was great, as it used play action in multiple directions and some eye-candy blocking misdirectio to get Metchie out in space, and then the true freshman Ja’Corey Brooks just blasted two dudes blocking on the perimeter. That’s the kind of play that will get him playing time in the future, and is encouraging to see in a year where none of the freshmen have been able to step up into a WR rotation that could have used one more playmaker to go along with Metchie and Jameson Williams.
The Tide’s next drive stalled when a huge Bryce Young scramble was called back due to a technically correct but very, very ticky tack holding. Following that, Treylon Burks made a phenomenal back-shoulder catch over Josh Jobe to get down the field, Arkansas converted a 4th down, and then Burkes outran Malachi Moore on a crosser to get the Razorbacks’ first score.
That moment marked the end of the defenses playing well, as two plays later, Bryce Young launched a ball downfield into double coverage. For all the talk of keeping deep safeties over the top being the dominant scheme in college football right now, Bryce saw the deep shell, said “screw it” and flung it as far as he possibly could.
55 yards later, it dropped into the chest of Jameson Williams, who had split the safeties, and he raced ahead for the score.
Jameson Williams with a Touchdown pic.twitter.com/sweGUxVj40— Alabama DieHards (@DiehardsAlabama) November 20, 2021
I’ll talk more about this later, but Bryce actually let the ball go while Jameson was still on the wrong side of the defenders. He trusted his man to outrun everyone, and it paid off.
Well, not to be outdone, Arkansas scored a quick TD as Malachi Moore crashed into Josh Jobe, leaving a WR wide open down the field for a 40 yard pass.
And then a couple of Brian Robinson runs later, Young hit Jameson Williams again on the old Tua-staple RPO slant, and Williams took it to the house, letting Alabama take things to halftime with a 24-14 lead.
If you thought things would slow down in the second half, you would have been very, very mistaken. Alabama marched down the field with a bunch of tough runs from Robinson, and once they got into the redzone, Young slithered around in the backfield for about 15 seconds before giving the defenders a snake-eyes side arm pass to Christian Leary, who slipped into the endzone for the freshman’s first touchdown of the year.
And then two plays later, Arkansas scored on a deep back-shoulder fade to, you guessed it, Treylon Burks. Of course, it took them snapping the ball after the play clock expired and Burks giving Jobe a full two-arms-extended shove to make that play happen, but so it goes. In any case, Jobe was totally outrun by everyone on the play, and was subsequently replaced by Kool-Aid McKinstry. I believe his turf toe is likely still affecting his play significantly.
In any case, this the point in the game where the Alabama offense just went full stupid.
A couple of big passes to Metchie and Trey Sanders (!) got Alabama down to the 4 yard line, and Bryce broke some poor sap’s ankles on his way to a touchdown, except Damieon George was call for a holding that was even less of a hold than the one that negated Young’s big scramble in the first half.
After that loss, Young took the snap and, with about 5 seconds of great blocking, was unable to find an open man. He scrambled left, circled, scrambled right, dropped deeper, and was finally sacked for a loss of 16 yards.
It was totally inexcusable field and situational awareness for the sophomore QB, and the issue compounded when Will Reichard’s ensuing field goal attempt fell about 1 foot short.
Fortunately, the Tide defense stood strong, finally, and got the ball back. Alabama quickly marched down the field, but inexplicably refused to call any run plays in the redzone with Arkansas going to a three-man front and dropping 8. Reichard did, at least, hit his field goal.
Burks managed another high point catch in between McKinstry and Hellams down the field for 30 yards (seriously, that dude is AMAZING. I haven’t studied the entire country, but he’s the best WR in the upcoming NFL draft if you ask me). The Alabama defense did hold strong, though, and with 4th and 9, Arkansas settled for a 50 yard field goal.
Of course, they’re down 13 points with 1 quarter to go, so anyone would expect a fake here, since 10 points or 13 points are still both 2 possessions.
Even Alabama’s coaching staff expected the fake and left the defense on the field.
When the punter took the snap and charged straight up the middle with 9 yards to go, the defensive line was about to easily make the tackle and prevent the fake from being successful. But, in the excitement, Henry To’oTo’o left the TE he was covering down the field to go charging up the middle.
And, as you might expect, the punter did the exact same jump pass that LSU pulled off two weeks back to the TE that To’oTo’o just left, and it went for an easy 40-yard touchdown to get Arkansas to a 6 point deficit.
(Edit: On further review, the referee actually blocked DeMarcco Hellams, springing the TE free. Turns out pick plays are legal when you wear stripes. I’m now much less angry with the Alabama defense about this)
Well, the offense did their best to march right back down the field with big pass after big pass, and Young launched a beautiful throw down the seam to TE Cam Latu. My heart skipped a beat at first, but Latu actually held onto the ball, broke a tackle, and drove headfirst into a few defenders in an attempt to score.
And that’s when he fumbled.
Too bad he didn’t just drop it initially.
The Alabama defense, though, bailed out the offense this time after three straight redzone trips had resulted in only 3 total points. They buckled up and forced a three and out, getting Alabama the ball back. And boy, did Bryce make them pay.
I’ve been complaining all year about Young’s deep balls not having enough air under them. He’s been trying to rifle the ball down the field, and it’s resulted in a lot of overthrows. This time, though? He dropped back, scanned the skies, and did his very best to kiss the moon. The ball dropped into Jameson Williams’ lap as he skidded through the endzone, giving Alabama a 14 point lead with only 5 minutes to go.
Now credit where credit is due, Arkansas came right back and put together a really nice drive, overcoming a couple of sacks and converting a 4th and 11 before finally throwing a weird fade over Christian Harris while the running back twisted around in a circle and made a crazy hard catch for a touchdown.
It burned pretty much the entire clock though, and the onside kick going out of bounds ended the game.
There was definitely some gnashing of teeth from Alabama fans after that weird 3rd quarter. Getting burned by the same fake field goal play that LSU did a couple of weeks ago hurt, and the redzone failures on the offense were particularly bad.
The cool thing, though, was what Bryce Young did to the “drop-8” defense that is so prevalent in college football right now. He absolutely shredded them up and down the field on short balls, medium balls, and long balls.
The Tide only punted one, and their only turnover was a fumble that was probably about to be a TD. There were no three and outs. The offense moved the ball every time they had it, and Young hit a bunch of deep shots, which has been the weakest throw in his arsenal this season. 559 yards, 5 touchdowns, 78% completion rate, and 14 yards per attempt.
His utterly stupid sack in the redzone notwithstanding, this was definitely Bryce’s best game of his career.
His receiving cast right now is almost totally John Metchie and Jameson Williams. The two combined 363 yards and 4 touchdowns, and the rest were a smattering of catches from others. Christian Leary and Ja’Corey Brooks both caught a ball, so it was cool seeing the young guys get a little playing time in big moments. Still no sign of Agiye Hall, Javon Baker, or Traeshon Holden, though.
In any case, Young was a lot more decisive today, and he hit all of his deep shots. Arkansas didn’t blitz him much like LSU and A&M did, but it was good to see him be able to pass accurately on all levels against a soft zone.
Chris Owens was replaced by Damieon George at right tackle, and the sophomore had a couple of bad plays early on before settling in, and the line seemed to play well all night. Of course, Arkansas only rushed 3 guys a lot, so it’s tough to judge just how effective the personnel change at RT really was.
The running game was good too, with Brian Robinson getting 122 yards on 27 carries. Trey Sanders only got one carry, but he did have the nice 34 yard catch and run. He’s got speed and doesn’t mind running headfirst into defenders, but he’s still leaving his feet too early rather than trying to drive for extra yards. I’m guessing that’s a psychological thing as he still has to trust his hip not to give out on him.
Defensively, Alabama gave up 35 points, and, yet, oddly enough they seemed to play well for the most part. The Arkansas Razorbacks are one of the best rushing teams in the country, and Alabama’s front seven just dominated. They held to Hogs to 2.6 yards per attempt on 40 tries, and it stymied their offense.
They still hit some big plays to Burks, but that, along with a few third down scrambles, was pretty much their entire offense. And even then, pretty much all of those big plays were just a case of Burks being bigger and faster than the defensive back covering him as opposed to a coverage bust. It happens, and there aren’t many 6’3” 230 receivers out there that can outrun an entire defense.
The defensive line was phenomenal despite losing DJ Dale to injury in pregame warmups. Will Anderson of course led the way with 3.5 tackles for loss, and he should have been credited with 2 sacks, but one KJ Jefferson scramble was considered a designed run. He also flushed Jefferson out of the pocket for both of To’oTo’o’s sacks.
And let’s talk about Dallas Turner for a minute. He’s been in the starting lineup ever since Drew Sanders got hurt before the Texas A&M game. Early on, Turner was mostly invisible, but the last three weeks I’ve seen him get more and more impactful. He was only credited with half of a tackle for loss, but he was involved in chasing Jefferson out of the pocket multiple times, and by my recollection, he blew up at least three run plays by trucking the man trying to block him.
Personally, I think Sanders has been healthy since the LSU, but Turner has just straight up won the job with phenomenal play (and that’s no knock to Sanders, who I think has also been very good).
At this point, we know who this Alabama team is. They boast a talented, aggressive front 7 that can eliminate some drives with their pass rush alone. The secondary is prone to giving up big plays, but they’ve cleaned up a lot of the tackling issues that plagued them in 2018-2020, and are generally a physical group.
Offensively, this team goes as Bryce goes. When he’s on, they’re nearly impossible to stop. Especially if he can keep hitting these deep shots and forcing the defenses to back off.
And despite all that, they will continue to do enough absolutely mind-numbing self-sabotage moments to force them to work extra hard to overcome it. Drops and fumbles are an issue for pretty much all of the pass catchers, Bryce is going to take some bad sacks, the defense is probably going to give up a couple of long passes, and the special teams continue to be... special.
And despite it, they scored 42 points, stopped the Razorbacks in crunch time, and beat another ranked team.
I don’t think these issues are going to just be fixed this deep into the season. It’s in the Tide’s DNA. The question is, can they be dominant enough on the other plays that they can overcome the self-inflicted wounds?
Next week is the Iron Bowl, and you can bet Auburn is going to throw every blitz in the book at Young in an attempt to knock the Tide out of playoff contention, even if Alabama has locked up an SEC Championship berth.
It will be up to Young to prove he’s learned from the LSU game and can deal with it.