By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 18, 2015
If Alabama is going to make a run at a national championship, one of the things that must happen for the Crimson Tide has undeniably begun to happen the last two or three weeks: The defense is getting incrementally better every game.
Alabama traded the I-formation offenses of Georgia and Arkansas for Texas A&M’s high-flying spread attack Saturday, and held it to 16 points of production. The Aggie rushing attack – which wasn’t spectacular by any means coming in but was nonetheless respectable – was completely shut down. Alabama’s defensive line lived in the Aggie backfield, quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray were mercilessly harassed, and Alabama’s secondary put on a performance for the ages.
One of the biggest questions following this team, and Nick Saban in general, is whether Alabama can play defense against spread teams. While Alabama did a good job against Ole Miss’ rushing attack in Week 3, the Rebels threw the ball effectively.
Texas A&M didn’t.
The fact Alabama could limit both the Aggie rushing and passing attack simultaneously bodes well for the future, because there are several potential playoff opponents who can do both. Teams like TCU, Ohio State and Baylor have weapons all over the field, and if Alabama is vulnerable to either the run or the pass, it’s going to make it tough on the Tide to avenge last year’s semifinal exit.
It’s not an easy task to be solid defensively against both ground and air games, and teams like TCU and Baylor, particularly, seem to have waved the white flag on defense altogether, preferring instead to run up as many points as possible and hope their own production is enough. Alabama stubbornly chooses to attempt to shut down the opposition, and its commitment to doing so is what won the game against the Aggies.
Not only did Alabama return three interceptions for touchdowns in this game, the defensive line throttled Texas A&M running back Tre Carson, which kept the Aggies from ever operating a run-pass option that the Tide would consider taking seriously. But the game’s turning point may not have come on an interception, but a three-and-out defensive stand in the third quarter.
Alabama had just finished yielding a touchdown following a fumbled punt return when the Crimson Tide offense bogged down at its own 32. Punter J.K. Scott’s kick was partially blocked and Texas A&M recovered at the UA 29-yard line, with both the crowd and momentum on its side.
After three plays, the Aggies had backed up 5 yards, thanks to a Reggie Ragland sack, and then Taylor Bertolet missed a field goal. The Aggies only crossed into Alabama territory once the remainder of the game – a drive that ended with a 36-yard field goal to draw within 15 points.
So out of sorts was the A&M offense, the Aggies only possessed the ball for 9 minutes and 58 seconds of the entire second half. And while Allen and Murray combined for 284 yards passing, much of it was between the 20s or even the 30s.
With Tennessee coming in next week before a much-deserved off-week, the Crimson Tide is slowly creeping back into the championship picture. Alabama still needs help – Ole Miss has to lose one more conference game, plus one of the Power 5 undefeated teams must lose – but the Crimson Tide’s path to a title got a lot clearer following this win.
Offensively, Alabama is still a bit scattershot, but a defense that was a liability at times in 2014 is apparently on the road to recovery. Alabama may not be completely “back” on defense, but it isn’t far off.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Texas A&M:
1. It’s all about the talent in the secondary. Neither Minkah Fitzpatrick nor Ronnie Harrison were on the 2014 team, and their presence on the 2015 team has made a huge impact. So has redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey stepping up at cornerback. But the biggest change of all came when Alabama moved cornerback Eddie Jackson to safety in the spring. The Crimson Tide had lacked a true ballhawk at safety in 2014 and Jackson may turn out to be the best in that role since Saban arrived, or at least since Rashad Johnson roamed the field. Fitzpatrick’s ability to play the physical Star position one minute and flex out to the edge and cover a talented receiver one-on-one the next is something the Crimson Tide hasn’t had since Javier Arenas was around. Melvin Tucker’s fresh perspective as the defensive backfield coach hasn’t hurt. Alabama’s secondary isn’t quite as good as its front seven just yet, but it won’t be long now.
2. OL struggles show how thin the margin of error is. Alabama fans are famous for calling for the backup, and after Ryan Kelly struggled against Ole Miss, Tide fans wanted to see J.C. Hassenauer. They got him today. Hassenauer will be a fine center one day, but just as Kelly struggled with opposing defenses as a second-year player, so did Hassenauer against Texas A&M. Pistol and shotgun snaps sometimes went wide, and Hassenauer had no answer for Daylon Mack when Mack lined up across his face. But Kelly’s ailment – originally reported as a concussion, but revised to perhaps heat exhaustion instead – wasn’t the only problem facing Alabama. Alphonse Taylor struggled for much of the day, and Cam Robinson and Ross Pierschbacher both had moments they’d just as soon forget. Texas A&M curiously started out in its nickel look with its rush package in at defensive tackle before switching to a more conventional front. The fact the Aggies were able to cause problems for Alabama despite being just average overall up front does not bode well against opponents with strong defensive lines, but thankfully for Alabama, the Crimson Tide is not scheduled to see another above-average defensive line during the regular season.
3. Jake Coker’s toughness was inspirational. Coker is not the best quarterback in the SEC, but he’s tougher than a cedar stump. Coker is probably one of the biggest quarterbacks Alabama has ever had, and his physicality was on display Saturday when scrambling. Coker’s willingness to lay a lick on presumptive tacklers inspired the rest of the offense, and while Tide coaches would probably prefer Coker not invite so much physical contact, it’s hard to hold against him the desire and willingness to get his jersey dirty. Coker’s long pass of the day went just 28 yards and Alabama didn’t attack down the field much, but that was due more to the line’s inability to keep the Aggie pass rushers off Coker than it was a concern over Coker’s throwing ability.
4. Special teams try to give the game away again. This was a mixed bag, because the kickers themselves did a fine job Saturday. J.K. Scott was back to his old self, booming 50-plus yarders with regularity, and placekicker Adam Griffith not only hit his two field goal tries, he sent rockets through the end zone on kickoffs all day long. Everything else, though, was a disaster. Alabama gave up a touchdown on a punt return, and the Tide’s own returner, Cyrus Jones, fumbled after a nice punt return of his own. Damien Harris misplayed a kickoff and ended up getting a 7-yard return out of the deal. Cole Mazza had at least two substandard snaps, one of which came on Scott’s blocked punt. It would be predictable to say that at some point, special teams miscues will get Alabama beat – but it’s already happened to an extent (Ole Miss).
5. Running game won the day on offense, but Derrick Henry needs help. Henry carried 32 times for 236 yards (7.4 avg.), which should be enough to give him sole possession of second place behind LSU’s Leonard Fournette in regards to who wins the title of best SEC back. What Alabama doesn’t have right now is a capable backup. Kenyan Drake has struggled between the tackles against better teams, Damien Harris doesn’t appear ready yet and Bo Scarbrough is untested. If Henry were to get hurt down the stretch, Alabama wouldn’t know what it has at the position. The Crimson Tide needs to develop some depth here, quickly.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN