While the game was far from perfect or even up to “the standard” that Alabama fans are so longing to see on a consistent basis, I think it’s fair to say that Alabama fans were generally pleasantly surprised by the team’s sound beating of Ole Miss yesterday. Fresh off a loss that saw the team wilt late and a putrid offensive showing against a bad South Florida squad, fans could be forgiven if they expected a loss after the Rebels went on a way-too-easy touchdown march early on.
Fortunately, the men showed much resolve this time around, holding the Rebels to a mere three points on 200 total yards in the final three quarters while dominating time of possession thanks to Jase McClellan’s 105 yard performance and an efficient short passing game. After much criticism of the offensive coaching during the week, Jalen Milroe’s talent was maximized in this one. I think he could still use a few more carries, as his 16 attempts included four sacks and thus netted only 28 yards, but we saw a few designed runs, rolling pockets and plenty of horizontal stuff to set up the deep shots.
Most encouraging was the defense which managed to limit an Ole Miss attack that had put up some pretty gaudy numbers against questionable competition coming in. Tim Keenan looked like a revelation at nose tackle, leading the way as Alabama collapsed the pocket somewhat consistently around Ole Miss QB Jaxson Dart. The Rebels couldn’t get much of anything going on the ground either, as Quinshon Judkins got 14 of his 56 yards on a single play. With sacks included Alabama ran for 131 yards and held Ole Miss to 56, harkening back to some early Saban era squads.
The secondary was quite impressive in this one, settling down after allowing two explosive pass plays on the early touchdown drive. Terrion Arnold got himself an interception and showed off some serious speed on the return. Kool Aid McKinstry wasn’t targeted often and should have had an interception on a pass over the middle where he ran the route better than the Ole Miss receiver. Caleb Downs showed up with a key pass defensed late in the contest, and thanks to a much improved pass rush wasn’t tested often other than that play.
It was concerning when Deontae Lawson left the game, but Jihaad Campbell and Kendall Blackshire stepped in and played like their hair was on fire. The front seven in general looked confident and competent as they rallied to the football. Saban said after the game that Lawson suffered a pretty significant ankle sprain and will be day to day.
Offensively, it was truly a tale of two halves. The first half was a comedy of errors again. There was an ugly end zone interception that squandered an essentially guaranteed three points, a snap over Milroe’s head with Alabama on the Ole Miss 1 yard line following a blocked punt from Ja’Corey Brooks, and an illegal shift penalty that negated a 27 yard catch by Amari Niblack, Penalties were still a problem overall, as the Tide amassed six for 60 yards. Fortunately Ole Miss helped the cause by drawing even more flags than Alabama, but it still needs to be cleaned up. Allowing four sacks is also unacceptable, though a couple of those were probably on Milroe for holding the ball too long.
The second half was about as close to the best case scenario for the 2023 Alabama squad as we will get. Alabama scored on its first three possessions, one field goal and two touchdown drives, and the major gaffes were kept to a minimum. Milroe seemed to gain confidence late in the game, which is encouraging for the rest of the season. Jermaine Burton appears to be his go to guy, and Jalen Hale had something of a coming out party. Hale caught a touchdown on a contested ball thrown as Milroe was getting lit up. Both men made a gutsy play on that one and the team seemingly responded.
Indeed, out of nowhere it seems that this Alabama team has found some internal leadership. Perhaps Tyler Booker, who returned from injury this week, is that important to the offensive line. Maybe some real inroads were made in the “players only meeting.” Whatever it was, they came out of the locker room in the second half looking like a team that knew it was going to dominate, and dominate they did. They played fast, loose, and appeared to be enjoying themselves.
Special teams were outstanding again. Alabama may well have the best kicker/punter combo in the nation with Will Reichard and James Burnip, and of course the blocked punt was big in the game even if the opportunity was somewhat squandered. It will help tremendously if the specialists are able to excel consistently as this offense continues to develop.
On to the other Mississippi this week. The Bulldogs have allowed an average of 34 points and 464 yards over the past three games, so there is an opportunity for the offense to show out on the road. After that will be a trip to College Station to face an Aggies defense that has played well since getting torched in Coral Gables to open the season, then Tennessee and LSU. Alabama showed improvement, but if they are to make it through that slate unscathed, it will need to continue and the mistakes limited even further.
Fortunately there is at least some reason for optimism after yesterday’s second half performance. Hopefully they are able to build on it.