By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 17, 2016
On a day when the list of people needing medical treatment for cramps probably included SEC replay official John Bible, Alabama snatched victory from the jaws of defeat before nearly handing it back.
For whatever reason, Ole Miss can struggle against teams much lesser than Alabama, but when the Crimson Tide comes to town (or when Ole Miss visits Tuscaloosa), the Rebels seem to be the one team in America that doesn’t wilt like yesterday’s daylily.
Perhaps instead of schools hiring away Alabama staff members left and right, trying to replicate Nick Saban’s success, they should be looking to Hugh Freeze’s staff, because he’s the only one that seems to have found a formula for beating Alabama, or at least coming very close.
Alabama primarily got by Ole Miss because the Rebel front seven (or front six, in Ole Miss’ 4-2-5 base lineup) is overrated and thin, something that was touched on in TideFans.com’s game preview. Alabama was never really stopped Saturday when it wanted to run the football. And Alabama didn’t adjust its game plan early enough, probably due to the shock of seeing every running back it used be successful. There’s a chance Alabama’s early insistence on jet sweeps and sidelines runs was a calculated attempt to tire out Ole Miss’ starters, but it’s a chance that rates out as slim.
Once Alabama started to focus on wearing down Ole Miss, whether that process started at kickoff or in the second half, Ole Miss looked powerless to stop it. The Rebel front got a decent pass rush early, but it tapered off, and Alabama’s interior line – a revamped lineup of Bradley Bozeman at center, with Ross Pierschbacher back to his 2015 position of left guard and Alphonse Taylor at right guard, along with tackles Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams – mashed Ole Miss’ defensive tackles play after play. Alabama ended up with two 100-yard rushers, and Alabama’s top three rushers put up the following yards-per-carry numbers: 8.1 (QB Jalen Hurts), 9.0 (Damien Harris), 11.0 (Joshua Jacobs).
But to call it Alabama’s best offensive line performance yet would ignore the fact Alabama had nine penalties on the day, many of them by the line and nearly every one of them in a crucial spot. Nick Saban addressed the issue at halftime, noting Alabama’s lack of poise and the high number of mistakes.
Alabama also paid a heavy price for its win, losing wide receiver ArDarius Stewart early in the game, then losing three of its top five defenders (S Eddie Jackson, CB Minkah Fitzpatrick, LB Reuben Foster). Stewart will be out at least a couple of weeks, but no definite word was immediately available on the defensive players. Fitzpatrick seemed to get the worst of it on the defensive side.
Along the way, Alabama learned a lot about its young quarterback, it developed some depth out of necessity, but it also found out that its own wide receiver corps might not be as good as advertised: Drops are still an issue, and the entire depth chart isn’t contributing there.
Fortunately, Kent State comes to town next week, and the Golden Flashes are 1-2 that includes a fairly close win over Monmouth and an overtime loss to North Carolina A&T. It’s too early to put that one in the win column just yet, but Alabama should be able to rest whoever it wants to rest and still come out the victor.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ole Miss:
1. Chad Kelly got the attention, but Jalen Hurts is the SEC’s future. As alluded to before the game, there no longer is a quarterback competition at Alabama. Jalen Hurts is playing it like an old hand already, although there were still a handful of moments in this game – trying to force a ball through double coverage, going airborne while scrambling too often against SEC defenders programmed to rip heads off necks – where the youth shone through. But let’s put this out there so it can be seen: Hurts is the future of the position in the SEC. He carried the ball 18 times for 146 yards, which includes yardage lost to a sack. He also threw for 159 yards on 60 percent completion. Moreover, he directed the offense like a veteran, and his prowess running the read option was what allowed Alabama to put the pedal down in the second half. A breakdown in his offensive line – either Alphonse Taylor was too slow to read a stunt, or communication between him and Jonah Williams was off – caused the fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
Today showed why Alabama has been moving away from pocket passers and toward dual-threat players. Teams without dual-threat players at quarterback can still succeed, but they will have to overcome the advantage teams like Alabama will have going forward.
2. Defensive reviews mixed in how Alabama handled Kelly. If anything, today at least takes some heat off Kirby Smart for the way Alabama struggled with multi-threat QBs in the past, because Jeremy Pruitt’s defense barely got in Kelly’s way today. Kelly completed 64 percent of his passes for 421 yards, 3 touchdowns and he averaged 10 yards per attempt. He’ll be remembered by some for the interception return by DE Jonathan Allen that ultimately sealed the game up for Alabama, but that came as a result of a sterling individual play from JLB Tim Williams to force what was more a fumble than really an interception. Alabama did manage to keep both Kelly and starting Ole Miss RB Akeem Judd contained, averaging about 3.3 yards per carry between them.
Alabama won’t see another quarterback like Kelly in the regular season, although that could be both a bad thing and a good thing. Looking at the teams currently atop the college football landscape, it’s not a longshot to say all four teams in the College Football Playoff could be helmed by dual-threat, dynamic quarterbacks. It would be nice to get to work against something similar the rest of the way in – Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs may be the closest analog – but at the same time, no one is going to miss Kelly when he leaves for NFL paydirt.
3. First-half playcalling is either genius or insanity. Alabama did basically the same thing against USC in the opener, but the Tide’s early strategy is apparently wide, wide, wide. It’s either evidence of a deliberate scheme to tire out the opposing defense – and if that’s the aim, there’s nothing to say other than: “it works” – or it’s about being wide-open just for the sake of being wide-open. Fortunately, Alabama has pretty much led the nation in halftime adjustments so far in 2016, and was able to edit its attack to get more favorable matchups for O.J. Howard in the passing game and to leverage its advantage against Ole Miss’ defensive line.
Thin as it was, Ole Miss was thought to have an edge in the OL-DL matchup against Alabama’s offensive line, but either the shuffling of the guard lineup or something else – Breeland Speaks has been unable to emerge as a complete player as a full-time DT starter, for instance – flipped the script. Alabama looked slow to adjust but once it did, all complaints were quickly forgotten. But Alabama may be one of the worst teams in the country in first-quarter offense this year.
4. Injuries left Alabama vulnerable, especially in the secondary. Ole Miss’ late resurgence was directly related to the losses of Foster, Fitzpatrick and Jackson. Rashaan Evans replaced Foster, Shyheim Carter replaced Fitzpatrick and Deionte Thompson replaced Jackson. For those keeping track at home, that’s one guy playing a new position in 2016 and two true freshmen. Evans is deadly as a pass rusher but he has struggled with overpursuit on running plays as an inside linebacker. Thompson looked slow to get into position on a couple of plays.
Chad Kelly took little time in recognizing and exploiting the newfound holes, although it should be noted that Carter did about as well as could have been expected, even being sent on a corner blitz against an offensive tackle, a play he actually executed well. There aren’t many teams that can absorb the loss of three defensive starters and still dominate the competition, and Alabama is no exception there. But Alabama, at least this season, is also dealing with the issue of a lot of true freshmen suddenly taking up key roles in the secondary two-deep. Fitzpatrick and Jackson are must-have players for Alabama going foward.
5. Lost in the hoopla is the fact that Alabama made far too many basic mistakes. People will remember the win, and rightly so, but if someone ever needed evidence that simple, basic mistakes can lead to losses, they will have no better supporting evidence than a tape of this game. Ole Miss wasn’t immune: Alabama’s two biggest plays of the game that negatively affected Ole Miss was the Jonathan Allen pick-six and Alabama’s goal-line stand after replay officials spotted the ball inside the 1-yard line. Ole Miss went backwards on a false start penalty two snaps later, which led to a field goal rather than four shots inside the 1.
For Alabama, in addition to several false-start penalties, there was a dropped pass by Gehrig Dieter when he was wide open, Hurts’ overthrow of TE Hale Hentges in the Ole Miss end zone early in the game, an 8-yard punt from a likely Ray Guy Award finalist, and a fumble late by Bo Scarbrough that could easily have reversed the outcome of the game all by itself. So sloppy was Alabama that Adam Griffith missed another medium-long field goal and no one will remember it. Alabama has a lot to clean up in the coming weeks; fortunately, the Crimson Tide will get a hapless Kent State team in Tuscaloosa next week, followed by a Kentucky team that is leaking oil badly already. Alabama’s next major test is an Oct. 8 trip to Fayetteville, Ark. Hopefully the bolts will be tightened a bit further by that time.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN