By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 4, 2016
There isn’t a lot of argument about a team’s ability to turn the flow of a game at will when that team can spot an opponent like Southern Cal an entire scoreless quarter of football, then put 52 points up in three quarters to hand the Trojans their worst loss in decades.
Alabama trailed 3-0 thanks to a rough first quarter that, hopefully, consolidated all of Alabama’s freshman mistakes into a single, 15-minute block of time. The Crimson Tide then opened up both barrels and blasted the Trojans right out of the discussion of national title contenders.
Given the hype surrounding this Southern Cal team, but given that the Trojans could only muster a preseason ranking of 20th coming into the game, Alabama fans may be left to wonder whether the Trojans are really a re-emerging power, or whether this was just another case of television talking heads trying to gin up excitement for a game that would prove to be just another Alabama walkover. In hindsight, it’s hard to argue against the latter being true, except that argument doesn’t give Alabama its due credit for making the Trojans look very, very mortal.
On paper, Southern Cal probably has as much talent at wide receiver, running back and perhaps the defensive secondary as does the Crimson Tide. Quarterback Max Browne, who had a tough night against Alabama made worse by some key failings on the part of his teammates, was an Alabama recruiting target at one time and could start for just about any SEC program. But Alabama abused the Southern Cal offensive line, and especially in the second half, gutted both levels of the Southern Cal front seven.
Southern Cal’s own attempts to shoot itself in the foot – most of them successful – also played a part. Alabama was the beneficiary of several penalties on special teams, the most memorable being key USC LB Jabari Ruffin inexplicably stomping Minkah Fitzpatrick in the groin as two officials were close enough to hear the ensuing “oof” from Fitzpatrick. As the referee so perfectly put it in describing the resulting penalty, Ruffin “disqualified himself from the game.”
Between the pick-six that followed, a busted blitz that left WR ArDarius Stewart alone for a 71-yard touchdown pass and a fumbled punt snap that set Alabama up inside the USC 20-yard line, Alabama’s game plan became less about long drives and ball security and more about simply cashing in.
Southern Cal may yet improve to the point that it’s a contender for the PAC-12 crown. But with the amount of upheaval the Trojans are experiencing as the result of their recent coaching change, the team USC put on the field Saturday looks like it has many hurdles to jump before breaking out of the middle of the PAC-12’s pack.
Either that, or Alabama simply is the juggernaut the scoreboard said it was.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Southern Cal:
1. QB depth chart looks both settled and unsettled at this time. If the game had ended when Alabama finally took Jalen Hurts out of it, there would be no question. Starter Blake Barnett struggled mightily out of the gate. He looked indecisive, nervous and intimidated. After Hurts’ forgettable first play, a fumbled handoff on a zone-read play, he settled down quickly and displayed the same quiet footwork and maturity beyond his years that we’ve talked about on TideFans.com since the first time we reviewed his high school films. But after Barnett came back into the game, the storyline changed a bit. Hurts finished 6-of-11 for 118 yards, although it felt like much more, but Barnett was right on his heels – 100 yards passing on 5-of-6 throwing. Hurts turned the ball over twice, but Barnett was sacked twice. And then there’s Cooper Bateman, who from Nick Saban’s postgame comments, was right on the heels of the other two this week. It may take several weeks to shake out, but there was no denying Hurts’ explosiveness.
2. DL depth chart, unfortunately, looks like a problem. Saban directly addressed the issue post-game, specifically that Alabama needs additional players to step up, and fast. The Raekwon Davis situation isn’t over yet, and if Alabama could get him eligible before the meat of the schedule arrives, it would go a long way toward fixing the problem. Alabama played only four linemen when it mattered: starters Dalvin Tomlinson, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, and reserve Da’Shawn Hand. Josh Frazier and Dakota Ball played only a couple of snaps each before it got time to empty the bench. Once that happened, Jamar King joined in, but no one else. O.J. Smith and Johnny Dwight never played, nor did true freshman Quinnen Williams. Alabama simply cannot go into SEC play with only four down linemen, and Saban acknowledged that fact. Dalvin Tomlinson was briefly knocked out of this game. Alabama won’t have a choice next week against Western Kentucky, as the Hilltoppers boast a prolific, tempo-filled offense. If Alabama plays only four down linemen for the entirety of that game, the Tide trainers might have to scrape them off the turf with a spatula afterward.
3. Down-the-depth-chart players make statements. One of the most fun things about the first game of the year is discovering contributors not at the top of the depth charts. On defense, there were plenty. MLB Keith Holcombe looked sharp in relief of Shaun Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster. JLB Anfernee Jennings was in Southern Cal’s backfield half a dozen times, disrupting plays. Walk-on Levi Wallace played well late in the game at cornerback. Two-way true freshman Trayvon Diggs showed signs of explosiveness on kick returns and may have to play more at wide receiver as a result of yet another injury to Cameron Sims. Alabama’s true freshman running backs, B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs, had good debuts, especially Jacobs, who looked almost angular going through the line. It’s hard to say how much of these players will play as the season progresses, but there weren’t any examples of true depth-related weakness, other than perhaps the aforementioned issues on the DL.
4. OL rebounded from a rough start to set the tone in the second half. The most disturbing thing about Bama’s play in the early going wasn’t the struggles at quarterback, it was the inability of the offensive line to get a push in the running game. Things settled down after Jalen Hurts entered and forced the Trojan safeties to back up out of the box, but as important as Hurts’ presence was, the jelling of the middle of the offensive line was much more so. Center Bradley Bozeman isn’t the tactician that the departed Ryan Kelly was, but he’s a mauler and once he locks up with a defensive lineman, it’s over. Guards Lester Cotton and Ross Pierschbacher finally found a rhythm, and largely as a result of those factors, Alabama rolled up 269 yards on the ground, led by 138 from Damien Harris. Alabama tallied 320 of its 465 total yards in the second half and almost all of its rushing yards then, as well. Alabama will need more from its OL this year than in previous years thanks to the learning curve at quarterback; this was a good first effort.
5. Speed on the defensive corners will carry Alabama through many tough spots. Probably the most dominant performance, top-to-bottom, came from Alabama’s linebackers and whatever DE/JLB combo was playing the edge on any particular play. Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams were disruptive outside, while Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton put on a clinic at inside linebacker. Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson abused Southern Cal’s offensive tackles. Southern Cal was left with no real weakness to target; the closest thing the Trojans could find was inexperienced junior CB Anthony Averett, but Averett ended up leading the team in tackles with 8 and more than held his own. Again, there needs to be a second wave developing here due to depth concerns – Anfernee Jennings and Rashaan Evans played a lot, but Alabama will need to see Christian Miller and Keith Holcombe more often over the course of the season. This is a defense that certainly has the potential to be dominant, but it feels like Alabama is one or two solid players away from being almost impenetrable. A great first effort as the 2016 season kicks off.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN