Alabama football games are rarely defined by one quarter, but the Crimson Tide’s 27-14 win over Arkansas was almost entirely about the fourth quarter plus 1:39 of the third.
And it never should have come to that.
The Crimson Tide spun wheels for most of Saturday’s game against Arkansas, victimized by spotty offensive line play, inconsistent quarterback play and playcalling that often veered into the realm of the obtuse. But the best defensive line in college football – perhaps the best defensive front seven – and a secondary that continues to improve every week kept Arkansas from really doing anything about it.
Alabama has completely shut down two SEC teams in two weeks that were led by world-class running backs. Georgia’s Nick Chubb, aside from one long touchdown scamper well after the game was in hand, and Arkansas’ Alex Collins will both be playing in the National Football League, and soon. Neither made much of an impact on their respective games. Alabama’s most recent effort – the stopping of Collins – was complete domination; there was no late breakaway touchdown there to pad the stats. Collins carried 12 times for 26 yards (2.2 avg.).
And if you’re a Razorback fan, here’s the scariest stat of the game: Of the four runners that touched the ball for Arkansas, Collins’ 2.2-yard average was actually the best.
Backup Rawleigh Williams, who had started to get things in gear after being forced into service replacing the injured Jonathan Williams, carried 5 times for 10 yards. Quarterback Brandon Allen and punter Toby Baker were the only other players to get carries before Arkansas had to completely suspend any illusion of a running game and try to play catch-up through the air.
That’s when Arkansas’ limitations really came into view. Hunter Henry, the Razorbacks’ top-shelf receiving tight end, was completely shut out of the stat sheet until Arkansas’ final drive, when he caught an 18-yard pass on the Bama sideline. Drew Morgan, who came into the game averaging around 85 yards per game, got just 15 on 4 catches. His highlight was a 1-yard touchdown reception against busted goal-line coverage.
Arkansas has long fought against inherent problems, some not of its own making. The Razorbacks have a small in-state recruiting territory. The program is considered to be in the second echelon of SEC West schools, not on a level with Alabama, LSU or Auburn. Its most recent head coaching hire netted Bret Bielema, a power-football adherent but only a decent recruiter and a coach who has proven to be a questionable tactician. Bielema’s decision to fake a punt in the third quarter may have ultimately cost Arkansas the game, as the failure to get the first down seemed to deflate the Razorbacks and Alabama scored on its subsequent possession to go up two scores.
Unfortunately for Alabama, as entertaining as this game turned out to be for fans of smashmouth football, it’s a game the Crimson Tide should have put away much, much earlier. Alabama left 6 points on the table thanks to missed field goals, and Jake Coker threw a pair of interceptions that killed other drives. Most troubling, Alabama didn’t run the ball well at all in this game; the Crimson Tide averaged 2.9 yards per rush and Derrick Henry spent more time being ineffective than he did the opposite.
In a year in which the SEC has been cursed by up-and-down quarterback play, Jake Coker’s up-and-down game was both a distillation of the phenomenon and also a harbinger of possible future pitfalls. The Crimson Tide’s next task is to go on the road to College Station, Texas, and face the most potentially explosive offense in the conference. Then it’s back home to take on a rival Tennessee team that suddenly looks resurgent following an upset win over Georgia. Neither opponent is likely to go down easy if the Tide’s starting quarterback is in a rut.
With other teams – and potential playoff competitors – like Ohio State and TCU not lacking for star-power quarterback play, Alabama has to do something in the coming weeks so that it can do more than live off its defense. This could end up being the best defense Nick Saban has fielded at Alabama – coupled to one of the most inconsistent and undependable offenses he’s had. The reality of modern offensive football dictates a team be able to do more than one thing well.
Thankfully, Arkansas was not able to do more than one thing well. It’s debatable whether the Razorbacks were able to do even one thing well at all. Until the late touchdown pass, the Razorbacks had yet to crack the 200-yard barrier for total offense. That’s not going to cut it in this league no matter how tough Alex Collins is or how resilient Brandon Allen is. Bret Bielema may well yet turn out to be the perfect coach for Arkansas, but he needs a better quarterback, better receivers and a better back end to his defense first.
Alabama’s game against Texas A&M next week may turn out to be the most dangerous opponent left on Alabama’s schedule, thanks to the Aggies’ chosen style of play. Alabama needs to figure out why its offensive plan didn’t work against a Razorback team with mediocre talent, and fix it. Otherwise, at least one of Alabama’s next three opponents could spoil Alabama’s season.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Arkansas:
1. After Good Bama OL dominates Georgia, Bad Bama OL shows up for Homecoming. The inconsistency here has been maddening all year, mostly because it has affected all five starters at one time or another. It’s hard to pinpoint where Alabama got hurt the worst on Saturday. In the running game, Derrick Henry never truly got going, and it could be reasonably argued that Kenyan Drake played a bigger part in the win thanks to creative scheming. But at least one of Jake Coker’s interceptions came as the result of an offensive line that couldn’t keep the defense off him. Film review later on will confirm this, but Coker dealt with STATs (snap-to-affect times) in the 1.5-second range at least 10 times Saturday. No quarterback is going to throw well when this is the case. Looking ahead, neither Texas A&M nor Tennessee has the ability to pressure the inside of the line that Arkansas had – although he collected only 4 tackles, DeMarcus Hodge won’t be on anyone’s Christmas card list in Tuscaloosa – but when LSU or Auburn comes calling, the story will be different.
2. Coker’s Jekyll-and-Hyde act is causing a run on Just For Men products. While a substantial portion of Coker’s struggles can be blamed on the offensive line play, Coker’s second quarter was about as bad a display of quarterbacking as Alabama has had in recent years. It wasn’t just about the Razorbacks that ended up catching a couple of Coker’s attempted passes, it’s also the missed reads, the overthrown patterns and the robotic feel for the game he sometimes seems to exhibit. Coker’s struggles were so pronounced just before half that a buzz began to rise from the sideline that Alabama should try Cooper Bateman in the second half. But Bateman never even so much as put on a helmet on the sideline, while Coker led the Crimson Tide to pull away late. It’s not clear how long Alabama can continue to win with this arrangement, but Coker needs to develop some consistency regardless.
3. Special teams again show need for fresh set of eyes. Alabama is unlikely to make any coaching changes before the season ends, but the performance against Arkansas will leave whoever is on the special teams staff over the offseason wearing out a tape deck and watching what went on in this game. Adam Griffith missed two field goals but made two, too. On one of the misses, the snap was high. Later in the game, when punter J.K. Scott got a punt partially deflected, the snap on the play was low. Cole Mazza’s consistency at snapper has been an issue dating back into 2014, but especially now considering the impressive performance of senior walk-on Alex Harrelson when Mazza was on leave, Alabama would do well to apply a shorter leash to Mazza. Alabama did not dress Gunnar Raborn for this game, leaving J.K. Scott as the only backup placekicker. Punt returns were well done, but kickoff returns continue not to impress.
4. Depth, speed on the edges kept Alabama out of trouble. Arkansas was about at the 160-yard mark in total offense before Brandon Allen found Dominique Reed for a 54-yard touchdown pass while scrambling. Part of the reason for this dominance is a defense that doesn’t just push well up the middle, but one that can also attack the edges, particularly with “rabbit package” linebackers Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans. Williams made his presence known against Georgia last week, as well. Alabama has had a hard time integrating this package into gameplans opposite spread offenses, however, and now’s the time to get it done. Alabama will need to affect the quarterback consistently next week in College Station. What’s been lacking against spread teams so far is an ability to set the edge without having to play larger, less dynamic players on the corners. Williams, in particular, appears close to being able to take that step up.
5. Bama still suffering from identity theft, but how much of that is due to OL play? It’s hard to say whether Lane Kiffin gets criticism for calling three bad quarters of football, or whether the calls were good but the execution by the offensive line to set those calls up was bad. Regardless, Alabama plodded along in the first half. Many fans were openly calling for more Henry, although his per-carry average was hovering under 4 yards per tote at that point. Others were asking for more passing, but Coker had already been picked off twice. The fact Alabama was able to shake off the rust from the point of the Ridley TD pass on shows that Kiffin knows what he’s doing, but it also took Alabama some time to figure out what it was going to be doing right on this particular afternoon. It may be time to redouble the focus on the offensive line and ask whether the struggles there have compressed Alabama’s offensive playbook. Alabama has yet to really do this so far, and that has cost the Crimson Tide some offensive production due to lack of a definitive identity, which is more than just a buzzword right now. Alabama seriously needs to determine whether it is a downhill rushing team with some spread elements put in, or if it’s a spread-style team that just happens to shift gears from time to time. Even Nick Saban himself has talked about the need to take a step forward in this regard. Saturday’s game against Arkansas did nothing to advance the cause.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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