Another week, another confounding tale-of-two-halves affair that ended in an Alabama victory. After the first half of football yesterday, it was fair to wonder if Alabama had it in them to win the game. Jalen Milroe’s strength hasn’t been throwing through zones, and through two quarters the Tennessee secondary had managed to keep everything in front of them. Those who wondered if another QB might have to take a crack at it based on the first half of play were justified, particularly since on the other side of the ball Joe Milton was having his best game of the season.
To their credit, confidence inside the locker room clearly never waned. The Tide came out of the break with a two play touchdown drive consisting of a long run off left tackle and a deep shot to Isaiah Bond, and the comeback was on. Alabama smoked Tennessee to the tune of 27-0 in the final two quarters to finish off what feels like a convincing win.
Still, that first quarter was ugly. Alabama’s defense allowed over 180 yards and 13 points in that frame. For all the world it looked like Tennessee’s fastball, horizontal offense was going to be the kryptonite for Alabama’s defense. Saban said after the game that they attempted to play “odd” early in the game to try and trap Milton in the pocket, which in practice meant a three man rush with a couple of spies. This strategy was victimized on the long touchdown pass to Squirrel White, a phenomenal catch by the way, as Milton had a clean pocket and OLB Chris Braswell ended up matched on White. It appeared that Jaylen Key failed to get off the hash on the play, but the big issue was a lack of pass rush.
Contrast that with the game sealing strip-sack where Alabama’s four-man rush generated the pressure, and Braswell got home. Saban noted after the game that Malachi Moore made Milton double-clutch the ball. A defense that looked completely lost early in the game somehow morphed into one that reminded of Saban’s best units.
Offensively, Alabama continues to be dependent on the big play to find points. The good news is that they have shown plenty of ability to generate them, but the first half is what happens when the other team is able to force Milroe and company to drive the field. Alabama’s first TD followed a third down pass to Jermaine Burton for 22 yards. The second was the aforementioned bomb to Bond. The third? Set up by another third down pass to Burton for 22 yards.
Alabama had 12 total possessions in the game not counting the end of half. The results? Three touchdowns, two field goals, five punts, two turnovers. When this group is clicking, they really click. When they aren’t, it’s frustrating to watch, and both extremes seem to come in bunches. In two weeks they play a LSU team that has been engaged in shootouts for most of the season. Can Alabama’s passing game take advantage of what has been a terrible secondary? They’ll likely need to as it’s tough to imagine the defense holding down the LSU offense for four quarters.
Guess we’ll see.
Jihaad Campbell had a coming out party. Besides the fumble return TD, he was seemingly everywhere. Tennessee uses the entire width of the field, so speed at the linebacker position was paramount in this one. Kendall Blackshire and Trezmen Marshall have also flashed this season, so it may well be that playing time is determined by the opponent.
CB Terrion Arnold went down with a concussion, and Trey Amos filled in admirably. Needless to say, the secondary will need all hands on deck vs LSU. RG Jaeden Roberts had to be helped off the field with a few seconds left in the first half, but amazingly started the second half. It’s possible that he was simply dealing with cramps.
Will Reichard lived dangerously on his field goals, but produced another perfect afternoon. James Burnip was fine punting the ball. Tennessee’s special teams helped Alabama’s cause immensely by putting the ball on the 4 yard line with an invalid fair catch on the kickoff following Bond’s TD.
You have to believe that Saban will be considering other options at punt returner over the bye week. For whatever reason, Kool Aid McKinstry has become so risk averse that he appears to be gun shy even executing a fair catch. Alabama lost substantial yards on punts that should have been caught but weren’t, and after the last one Saban was visibly upset about it on the sideline. This will be something to monitor.
There has been nothing resembling consistency from this team, but they go into November undefeated in SEC play. Like last year, the LSU game will likely decide who goes to Atlanta in a month, and that game looks like another toss up. By now Alabama fans should have trained themselves to watch the games with hope rather than expectations.
If nothing else, this group has entertained.