By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 2, 2016
No one has an audio tape of what Alabama’s locker room was like at halftime, but judging from the looks on the faces of the Crimson Tide players as they returned to the field for the start of the third quarter, Nick Saban must have conducted his halftime speech while holding a flamethrower.
Alabama’s offense sputtered badly in the first half, to the point where the departure of QB Blake Barnett was starting to look like it happened at least one week too soon. Alabama took a 17-3 lead into the half, but the lead was built mostly by one solid drive riding the back of true freshman RB Joshua Jacobs and a defensive effort that was one of the finest, start to finish, of any Alabama game in recent memory.
Kentucky’s most effective drive was arguably its last, which covered 16 plays and took 9:42 off the clock. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, it came to an end at Alabama’s 13-yard line, and Mark Stoops elected to kick a second field goal rather than go all that way and hand the ball over to Alabama on downs.
In between Kentucky’s opening drive, which netted the Wildcats’ first field goal, and its last, Kentucky turned the ball over twice and was forced to punt six times. The Wildcats failed to break the 90-yard mark either in total rushing or total passing. Quarterback Stephen Johnson was sacked four times.
Such has been life under Stoops for the Kentucky program, which has simply failed to improve over his tenure or consistently challenge good teams. This Kentucky team looked like something out of a lower division, certainly not an SEC contender. Star RB Stanley “Boom” Williams was held to 22 yards on 9 carries (2.4 avg.) and Jojo Kemp to 39 yards on 10 carries. Stephen Johnson, who came into the game as Kentucky’s second-leading rusher, managed to net minus-26 yards on the night. The only thing “dual-threat” about Williams’ night was that he was constantly under the dual threat of being sacked by Jonathan Allen and/or Tim Williams.
Had Alabama’s offense shown up in the first half, an already ugly game could have wound up having all the allure of Medusa’s head of snakes: Any non-Alabama fan looking at it would have instantly been horrified and turned to stone.
But thankfully for Saban, who has never met a teaching moment he didn’t try to copyright, Alabama made just enough mistakes that Alabama’s coaches will get an honest week’s worth of material they can work through to fix. Alabama will face an eminently more dangerous Arkansas team next week, and if Alabama gets off to a start similar to the one it put together against Kentucky, the Crimson Tide will likely have to come from behind in the second half to win.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Kentucky:
1. Jalen Hurts played his worst half of Alabama football followed by his best. Hurts was 10-of-20 for 80 yards at the half, but more troubling than his mediocre numbers was the fact he missed several reads, was slow to throw the ball away and generally appeared to be in a fog. Rumblings began circulating that the departure of Barnett had taken away some of the over-the-shoulder motivation, but Hurts’ second half went as right as his first half went wrong. Hurts’ second-half numbers: 10-of-13, 76.9%, 182 yards, 14.0 yards per
attempt, 2 touchdowns. Some of this was due to a change in Alabama’s offensive attack strategy (see point No. 2, below), but Hurts also seemed to settle down and not rush his decisions. With Barnett gone, Hurts ostensibly has an absolute grip on the starting quarterback job, so watching him be able to learn in-game and adapt is huge for Alabama’s potential success going forward.
2. Kentucky’s plan was to stop the big play. It worked … sort of. Kentucky played its safeties deep for much of the game, not so much daring Alabama to open up the offense underneath, but rather to send a message to Lane Kiffin that he wasn’t going to beat the Wildcats over the top. In that regard, it was a success. Hurts completed only one deep pass of note, and that was a sideline route to Calvin Ridley in the second half that was simply a perfect pass. Kentucky yielded nothing significant deep over the middle, and were it not for Ridley abusing Kentucky’s entire secondary whenever he got a one-on-one matchup with one of its members, this strategy might have given Alabama some trouble, given Jalen Hurts’ weakness at the moment is deep passing between the hashes. Alabama recognized this at halftime, and adjusted to more short- and intermediate-range passes and a greater reliance on the running game. But the biggest improvement to Alabama’s offense that came after half may have come from the Crimson Tide finally wearing out Kentucky’s wafer-thin depth chart.
3. Alabama’s non-traditional RB rotation continues to pay dividends. Damien Harris was a surprise contributor in this game a week after an ugly ankle sprain. But Harris was mostly a decoy, getting just 3 touches and playing mostly on third down. Joshua Jacobs instead was the featured back, netting an even 100 yards on the night, including 58 yards of a single drive that resulted in Alabama’s first touchdown. Jacobs never was caught behind the line of scrimmage, and seems to always be falling forward for extra yardage. He also caught 3 passes for 44 yards. B.J. Emmons played early, went to the bench and then returned late to help Alabama burn off the clock. Bo Scarbrough seems to have been passed by Jacobs on the depth chart, at least as a featured back. Scarbrough’s contributions came mostly in packages or late in the game. It’s hard to define how this depth chart is actually structured right now, but it looks like Alabama will be using mostly Harris and Jacobs in the primary role the rest of the way in, barring injury. Both are impressing people on a weekly basis.
4. Kentucky’s OTs had no answer for the Crimson Tide edge rush. Even though Tim Williams sat out the first half as punishment for an arrest, Alabama made life tough on Kentucky’s offensive tackles and by association, tough on QB Stephen Johnson. Left tackle Landon Young in particular was wishing he was anywhere but where he was. Williams had 4 tackles in the second half; 3 were for losses and 1 was a sack. Christian Miller, who rotated with Anfernee Jennings and Ryan Anderson while Williams was out, shared a sack with Anderson (as an SLB) and was disruptive when he was in. Rashaan Evans and Jonathan Allen also came off the corners to record sacks. Alabama recorded 6 QB hurries, 2 of them by Williams, and caused Johnson to fumble twice. Whether Williams was just especially motivated, or if it had to do with being fresh after riding the bench for a half, he did more in 30 minutes of play Saturday night than some teams’ starting defensive ends have done in 5 games. Alabama’s performance highlighted the speed advantage the Tide coaches have crafted on defense, particularly on the edge, where Alabama’s defensive ends are more or less without peer even in the conference.
5. With Barnett gone, Cooper Bateman makes his case for the No. 2 job. There wasn’t much uncertainty over who was going to back up Jalen Hurts with Blake Barnett gone. Cooper Bateman had finished fall camp well ahead of David Cornwell, in part due to a lingering injury Cornwell is just now getting over. But Bateman’s performance on Alabama’s final drive was encouraging nonetheless. Bateman finished 5-for-5 for 53 yards, mostly on a short-range, sideline passing game. What was most impressive was his quick release and perfect placement of his throws, which allowed the receivers to get up the field quickly. It is doubtful that Hurts could find himself removed from a game for performance reasons – he had built a sizable lead over Barnett and Bateman for the starting job, not to mention that Alabama coaches have to take the bad with the good when selecting a true freshman as a starter – but if Bateman continues to perform the way he did against Kentucky, Tide coaches will at least know they have a backstop in the event of disaster. The risk here is reading too much into Bateman’s performance given Kentucky was tired and the game was far out of the Wildcats’ reach when he entered the game. Still, Alabama was not anticipating the loss of its primary backup, so Bateman’s performance is a 100-percent positive development.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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