By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 9, 2016
Alabama fans – to say nothing of poll voters who tend to vote their preference based on the number of bulbs shorted out on the scoreboard – might get starry-eyed over Alabama’s 49-30 win over Arkansas Saturday, but Nick Saban likely won’t be tempted to join them.
Alabama’s offense did a solid job against Arkansas, but not a superlative one. Any turnover total greater than zero is too many, and Alabama recorded three of them. But true freshman QB Jalen Hurts continued his ascension to stardom, and the Crimson Tide put together a solid running game even without Joshua Jacobs, who suffered some kind of hand or elbow injury early in the first quarter.
But defensively, Alabama lost its composure, and as a result, Arkansas QB Austin Allen played pitch-and-catch with his receivers despite spending as much time picking himself off the ground as he did actually throwing the football.
Alabama’s defense gave fans both the best and worst of worlds; the pressure the Crimson Tide brought to bear on Allen was the best perhaps of any game against an SEC contender during Saban’s tenure. But the secondary played so poorly that Saban was still chewing on them as he walked to midfield to shake Bret Bielema’s hand.
Arkansas could have made the process more painful for Alabama Saturday, but Bielema was too busy losing his own composure. Arkansas had a touchdown called back because of a holding penalty that was, to put it nicely, not a holding penalty. Arkansas ended up losing four points in the transaction, but Bielema then came unglued on the Arkansas sideline and got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. That resulted in Alabama getting 15 bonus yards on the ensuing kickoff return, which the Tide leveraged to turn into more points.
In between Bielema coming off like a coil spring with a blood pressure problem, and Alabama’s secondary playing its worst game of the year as a group (with the notable exception of Minkah Fitzpatrick), the fact Alabama was able to dominate both lines of scrimmage and put up a 19-point victory shows just how talented this team really is. It became clear early on that Arkansas would not be able to beat Alabama with its chosen plan of attack, and once reduced to one dimension, the Arkansas offense quickly pushed past the boundaries of its comfort zone.
Alabama’s road to the SEC West title doesn’t get any easier; the Crimson Tide must travel to Tennessee before coming back home the following week to play Texas A&M, a team that looks like a legitimate contender for the division title now. Honestly, the death knell probably had been sounded too early for teams like LSU and Auburn, too. Fortunately for Alabama, those latter two teams aren’t the threat to throw for a win like Arkansas was.
The key going into games against Tennessee and Texas A&M will be to quickly improve the pass defense, particularly on the edges. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey would just as soon forget this game, as probably would S Ronnie Harrison and third corner Anthony Averett. While Arkansas’ wide receivers are better than most evaluators would initially expect, Keon Hatcher wasn’t 100 percent and Drew Morgan spent a chunk of this game on the sideline after taking a shot to his lower back in the third quarter. Alabama played a lot of man defense with an aggressive blitz package from the linebackers, but that was done with the understanding that the cornerbacks could hold serve with the Razorback wide receivers.
On the flip side, Alabama’s offensive line, profiled as the one matchup on the field that favored Arkansas in TideFans.com’s preview, made mincemeat of the Razorback front seven. Alabama rushed for nearly eight yards per attempt and allowed no sacks. It was complete domination, by far the best performance for the group on the year. If Alabama can start to play with more consistency there, the season will get a lot more manageable.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Arkansas:
1. What’s wrong with this secondary? The answer might be “nothing,” but twice in six games, Alabama has played poorly in pass defense. Against Ole Miss, the issue was probably more about safeties being out of position and injuries, as Alabama was forced to play its sixth, seventh and eighth defensive backs in key roles against the Rebels. Here, there was no excuse. Minkah Fitzpatrick played stellar football, especially when Alabama was in nickel situations, which allowed him to move off the near-side corner spot and into his familiar Star position. Fitzpatrick has a lot of similarities in his game to that of former LSU standout Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, a ballhawk whose aggressiveness amps up as the pressure of the game gets higher.
The main problem in Fayetteville was that primary corner Marlon Humphrey lost a surprising number of one-on-battles — but also, safety Ronnie Harrison was late several times getting to a spot and Anthony Averett, although not challenged often, was unable to find the success he’s had against other teams so far this year. Eddie Jackson wasn’t immune, unwisely going for an interception while supporting Fitzpatrick in double coverage, which resulted in a long gain just prior to halftime and set up an Arkansas touchdown. Alabama has shown more aggressiveness in 2016, perhaps the influence of new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. But Austin Allen is a good-but-not-great quarterback, and Alabama made him look like Aaron Rodgers at times. Better quarterbacks await each of the next two weeks.
2. Alabama’s running back group may be the league’s most underrated. If Joshua Jacobs hadn’t been hurt early, it’s no telling how bad this could have gotten for Arkansas. It was already pretty bad: Alabama averaged 7.8 yards per carry as a team, which included 19.0 per carry from Jacobs and 9.4 from Damien Harris, who shouldered most of the load after Jacobs was knocked out. But this was also Bo Scarbrough’s best work with a game still on the line, as Scarbrough carried 7 times for 56 yards (8.0 avg.), including a 21-yard touchdown. Only B.J. Emmons, who got 9 yards on 3 carries during trash time when everyone in the stadium knew he’d be getting the ball, looked mortal. The more they ran, the better Jalen Hurts looked in the passing game. Alabama can throw in as many new-age wrinkles as it wants to; its success comes down to running the football and the passing game opening up as a result – which it did.
3. Hurts’ development continues in ways not reflected by the stat sheet. Fayetteville is not the easiest venue in the SEC by far; it is loud, raucous and, as we’ll touch on in point No. 4 below, Alabama usually gets Arkansas at its most hostile. Hurts had, statistically, as good a game as one could imagine. He completed 76.5% of his passes and averaged 14.9 yards per attempt. He threw an interception, but it was caused by a protection breakdown that resulted in Hurts getting hit during the throw. It’s difficult to imagine Hurts doing any better than he did. He’ll certainly get a test for the ages next week, when he faces a Neyland Stadium crowd 30,000 people larger than this one and significantly more upset. But watching Hurts go through his progressions, refuse to force throws and operate the QB run package like an expert, it would seem he could be the guy to finally challenge Jamelle Holieway’s 30-year standing as the last true freshman to lead a team to a national championship.
4. Bielema in danger of being college football’s Don Quixote. It’s no secret how much the Alabama game means to Bret Bielema, as he has explicitly said Alabama is the SEC benchmark and he views beating Alabama as a way to solidify his program, if not his own future. So it might not be much of a surprise to know that Bielema overdid it a bit Saturday night, and his team followed in his footsteps somewhat.
First there was the meltdown on the sideline after officials took away an Arkansas touchdown. But more so than that was Bielema’s stubborn insistence to leave QB Austin Allen in the game long after the outcome was beyond Arkansas’ reach, to say nothing of Allen being beyond his tolerance for physical abuse. Alabama sacked Allen 6 times for a loss of 49 yards and hit him probably 10-15 other times after he released the ball. Allen proved himself a warrior, but at what cost? Arkansas’ season didn’t end because it lost to Alabama today, but had Alabama knocked out Allen, it might have ended for all practical purposes. Bielema must stop letting the Alabama game go to his head.
5. Among those who had a rough night: The guys in the zebra stripes. First of all, unsportsmanlike penalty or not, Bret Bielema had a point. Arkansas was flagged for holding Da’Shawn Hand when in fact, Hand appeared to get himself off-balance and fall without any help from the Arkansas offensive tackle. But Rashaan Evans didn’t rough the passer (he was tripped up by an offensive lineman and tackled the quarterback by the legs on his way down; he didn’t purposefully dive for Allen). There were a full half-dozen very obvious holding penalties not called on Alabama’s defensive ends.
Arkansas’ JaMichael Winston should have been ejected for neck-wringing (literally) Jalen Hurts while Hurts was lying helpless on the ground. Minkah Fitzpatrick took a cheap shot that could easily have been called targeting. No officiating crew sees everything – the writer of this column himself was a referee for several years and for a time, trained basketball officials as a job – but the SEC has been especially inconsistent this year. Part of it is due to brain drain, as several veteran officials have retired or moved on. But this may be a time to start the discussion again over paying officials more and employing them for more than just a few weekends and a couple of camps. It would require an investment of time and, most importantly, money that school presidents would have to give up, so fat chance that it happens. But it really needs to happen. In the short-term, the only thing to be done in the wake of this game is suspend JaMichael Winston for Arkansas’ next game and hope the situation magically fixes itself.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN