By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 27, 2016
Give Gus Malzahn credit – Auburn played to its strength Saturday night. Unfortunately, it was strength at the placekicking position, and Alabama was scoring touchdowns instead.
Alabama made a barely competitive game close for a half thanks to its own mistakes, which included two interceptions and a rare horrid punt from J.K. Scott that put Auburn in business just outside the red zone. The halftime score of 13-9 served as an effective wake-up call for an Alabama team that mishandled the ball on six other first-half plays – in addition to the two interceptions – and Alabama didn’t wait long to put its foot down on the gas pedal in the second half.
At the half, Alabama had run up 14 first downs to just one for the Tigers. Auburn had less than 10 yards passing. Yet the two turnovers and the punt that might as well have been a third one had led to three Daniel Carlson field goals. Carlson would be called on to kick twice more in the second half, making one and missing a long attempt.
Those five kicks were the result of an Auburn strategy that was equal parts overly conservative, and ridiculously gimmicky. Auburn decided twice to have injured H-back Chandler Cox attempt passes; one went for a loss of 3 yards, and the other – thrown on fourth down, yet – resulted in a crippling interception that killed Auburn’s last real shot to challenge the end zone.
On the other hand, Malzahn was quick, perhaps too quick to lean on Carlson rather than take chances on fourth down. The strategy looked viable if one had only looked at the actual halftime score. Look in the stat book, however, and it became clear that Alabama dominated this game. Alabama ran up 501 total yards to just 182 for the Tigers. The presumed mismatch of Auburn’s defensive line working against Alabama’s offensive line never materialized; Jalen Hurts was never sacked, and Alabama rushed 44 times for 203 yards as a team, a 4.6-yard average.
Coach Saban’s Post-Iron Bowl Press Conference
The end result was somewhat predictable given injuries for Auburn at the quarterback position. The Tigers’ best option, Sean White, didn’t play, and shoulder surgery may be in his future. But Sean White isn’t Danny White; his season statistics were mediocre to begin with, he’s not a great runner, and his arm strength has never been better than average. He would certainly have helped Auburn on Saturday, particularly to take better advantage of Alabama’s first-half miscues, but Auburn wasn’t going to win this game with any of its current players taking snaps.
The starting assignment fell to Jeremy Johnson, who should be commended for sticking around for the whole year after getting relegated to third-team duties early on in the season. But loyalty doesn’t equal talent, and Johnson, who has always looked somewhat a fish out of water in a HUNH offense, was ineffective: 4-of-13 passing for 34 yards, 2 carries for minus-1 yard and a sack. He overshot receivers, completely missed seeing others, and never looked in control of the game.
John Franklin III actually would have been a better choice, in hindsight, as he at least gave Auburn a legitimate rushing threat. He completed two long passes set up by the threat of the option, but it was clear from watching his throws – soft, erratic – that Alabama would have made him pay for his shortcomings eventually.
On a global level, it was also clear that the magic of Malzahn’s HUNH option spread offense was gone. Malzahn correctly noted earlier in the week that Alabama had taken some pages from his playbook. What that has done, in addition to making Alabama’s offense more multiple, is given the Crimson Tide defense a weekly dose of practice at stopping those plays.
College football – or any other sport, for that matter – has long been about the Jimmies and Joes more so than the Xs and Os. In Malzahn’s early years, he usually had both – and when he didn’t, his formation advantages had helped even the playing field.
In recent years, however, two modest rule changes – officials giving defenses time to make substitutions, and a more rigid stance on ineligible linemen releasing downfield on pass plays – have had a sobering effect. Auburn fans have complained about it, but the game should be decided between the chalk, by the players themselves, not coaches looking to exploit technical shortcomings in the rule book. Auburn was flagged once in this game for a man downfield illegally, and the administration of substitution periods allowed Alabama to match up more easily from play to play. For those who still have a problem with the new rules, get used to it. They won’t be changing back.
This game, whether the score reflects it or not, was just as lopsided as Alabama’s 36-0 win in 2008 or its 42-14 win in Auburn in 2011. The low-water mark for Auburn’s Chizik-Malzahn era is still the 49-0 loss suffered in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2012, but this one wasn’t far off. Auburn looked overmatched and impotent. And it will take more than a healthy quarterback to change those dynamics.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Auburn:
1. Alabama’s reformed defense has taken the air out of the HUNH. This isn’t just a problem for Auburn. Alabama has been able to retool its defense to be more effective against spread offenses by modifying the recruiting prototype at multiple positions, most notably defensive end and outside linebacker. Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson have a little less size than some previous Saban-recruited defensive ends, and they’re more athletic. The change is even more dramatic at outside linebacker, where Alabama has cut back on raw size in favor of a player with a quicker first step, but still enough beef to set the edge against the run. As a result, the number of responsibilities that before, fell to the inside linebackers, has lessened, and has freed those positions up to fill inside gaps and attack with more confidence. Players like Anfernee Jennings, who before would have been considered the norm at Jack linebacker, are now situational, while Alabama’s roster is chock full of Jacks and future Jacks in the mold of Tim Williams, Christian Miller and Terrell Hall. Auburn isn’t the only opponent negatively affected by the change, but the Tigers are the ones who’ll hurt the most from it long-term. Alabama will have its work cut out for it going into 2017, having to replace the core of its front seven, but the one area Nick Saban has never struggled with is recruiting.
2. Jalen Hurts came through when it counted, but his ball security is regressing. There is always room for improvement even in lopsided wins, and nowhere is it more needed than with Jalen Hurts when he starts to run with the ball. Hurts fumbled twice, although one was wiped out by review because his knee was down. Saturday was also not his best passing day, not necessarily because of the two interceptions – a receiver appeared to trip on his second one – but because of the receivers he didn’t see. ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard both had easy touchdowns that Hurts simply failed to throw. His stats – 27-of-36 for 286 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions – were padded by the fact that many of the “completions” were pop passes to a receiver coming across the formation on a jet sweep. None of this is news to the coaches; any true freshman quarterback should be expected to struggle a bit at times. Besides, Hurts just finished quarterbacking Alabama to an undefeated regular season. But the games only get tougher from here, and Hurts’ first responsibility reads like the modern version of a doctor’s Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.
3. Offensive line gave Alabama its biggest tactical edge. The defensive front seven was as strong as ever, but this win doesn’t happen without Alabama’s offensive line winning the battle against Auburn’s vaunted defensive line. It took Alabama a half to realize it could run on Auburn (more on that in a minute), but once the Crimson Tide did, it was all downhill for the Tigers from there. Alabama applied the pressure mostly in the third quarter, scoring on three consecutive drives (two touchdowns, then a field goal).
Alabama also seemed to have saved Bo Scarbrough for second-half duty, and it quickly became evident why, as Scarbrough had to take frequent breaks to manage a minor leg injury. Scarbrough finished the day with 90 yards on 17 carries, a 5.3-yard average, but most importantly, he got yardage after first contact on nearly every run. Add in contributions from Damien Harris (47 yards on 9 carries, plus 22 yards receiving) and Joshua Jacobs (32 yards on 5 carries, plus 30 yards receiving), not to mention the fact Jalen Hurts was never sacked, and Alabama’s entire offensive line ought to be eating at the nearest Ruth’s Chris tonight. Auburn looked surprised, if not shocked, when Alabama began pummeling the Tigers straight ahead, and the stat of the night? No Auburn defensive down lineman recorded a tackle for loss.
4. Too-cute playcalling cost both teams. At least Alabama snapped out of it in the second half. But when Alabama lined up in a five-wide set on 3rd-and-inches early in the game, it was a sign that Nick Saban needed to reduce the number of Lane Kiffin’s playcalling sheets on the fly by about half. Alabama’s plan to attack the edges on flys and sweeps was sound given the depth issues along Auburn’s defensive line, but the effect was muted thanks to numerous stoppages in play for video reviews and for CBS Sports’ infamous addiction to full media timeouts.
When Alabama finally challenged its offensive line to win one-on-one matchups and began attacking the gut of Auburn’s defense, good things started to happen. But at least Alabama didn’t have an injured fullback throwing passes in key situations, or attempting (and failing) to fool the opposition with quick-to-the-line formations and rushed snaps. At some point, that act is going to get old in Auburn. It probably already is.
5. In such a key game, walk-ons played a big part. When CB Marlon Humphrey went down in the second half, it was a walk-on from Tuscon, Ariz., Levi Wallace, who stepped in and played a key role. Walk-on RB Derrick Gore was Damien Harris’ primary backup for most of the first quarter. But the story of the night was really senior Lawrence Erekosima, a running back with only a handful on career snaps to his credit, who was honored last during Senior Day activities.
As Nick Saban went down the line shaking hands and posing for pictures with players’ families, Erekosima’s mother, who had been deployed in the U.S. Army in the Middle East for the past 12 years, surprised him by coming home early from her deployment and sharing the moment with him. If you could have harvested the tears being shed at that moment inside Bryant-Denny Stadium and re-purposed them, you could have done damage to Tuscaloosa County drought conditions. It’s unlikely Erekosima will see the field again for Alabama, but what he received Saturday was far more valuable than a late carry in a blowout game or the chance to run down on kickoff coverage.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN