By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 10, 2017
Alabama hobbled into a Week 2 game against an overmatched opponent, got a comfortable (if not overwhelming) victory, didn’t get anyone hurt and failed to cover the spread. Where have we heard that one before?
After pretty much every Week 2 win in the Nick Saban era, that’s where.
If anyone thought Alabama was going to actually cover the spread in this game, they haven’t been paying attention to the last decade of football in Tuscaloosa. Alabama frequently uses its first two on-campus out-of-conference games to work on things that pop up during the opener, as well as set the depth chart for the remainder of the season.
And that’s exactly what Alabama did against Fresno State. In this game, Alabama had the added task of finding two new starting outside linebackers thanks to the devastating number of injuries suffered against Florida State. Beyond that, tasks included getting QB Jalen Hurts comfortable in the slightly-revamped offense, developing some continuity on the offensive line, and continuing to establish a downhill running game in advance of the start of SEC play.
The final score of 41-10 pretty much told the tale. Alabama gave up a garbage-time touchdown with the second- and third-unit defense on the field, but controlled the game thoroughly and snuffed Fresno State under relentless pressure. Scoring a touchdown on the second offensive play of the game didn’t hurt, either, especially doing it by way of the ground game. For a Fresno State team desperately trying to improve on last year’s deplorable rush defense numbers, watching Hurts take an option off-tackle and run through and away from the Bulldog defensive backfield probably did as much to deflate Fresno State as anything else Alabama could have conjured.
With the outcome of the game more or less known by the halfway mark of the second quarter, the focus shifted to getting no one else hurt. Levi Wallace got a couple of minor scrapes but other than that, Alabama could consider this goal as mission accomplished.
Colorado State looms, and the Rams opened with an impressive win over Oregon State before getting completely dominated by rival Colorado. CSU has already played three games; its third was middling 38-10 win over lower-division Abilene Christian.
Next week should end up looking an awful lot like this week, if Alabama plays with the same intensity and force as it did against Fresno State. Then it’s on to a string of seven straight conference games over eight weeks. The Crimson Tide will either fail that test or survive it based on how well it continues to make incremental improvements in its chief areas of concern.
Here is the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Fresno State:
- Alabama’s new OLB tandem a mixed bag. At a glance, a defense that held Fresno State to 287 yards, and one that saw its starters keep Fresno State out of the end zone entirely, would draw praise across the board, but that’s not necessarily the case here. Alabama needed to work out a new OLB rotation against the Bulldogs, at least for the next 3 weeks while Anfernee Jennings mends. Jamey Mosley and Christopher Allen were the starters Saturday; Mosley is a walk-on and Allen a true freshman seeing his first snaps. For the most part, things went OK, but Nick Saban alluded in his postgame press conference to needing some improvement and consistency. Mosley seemed to be the more on-point of the two, and certainly saw more action when the starters were all in. There is no doubting Allen’s athleticism and potential, but there were times Saturday that gaps appeared in the second level, and regular observers of this team realized a player – namely, an outside linebacker – should be there to fill them. It’s doubtful Mosley or Allen will get a much tougher test next week against Colorado State, meaning the Crimson Tide could be headed into a matchup with a fairly solid Vanderbilt team in two weeks still not knowing what it really has at this position. Once Jennings comes back, expect him to take the early snaps and give way to Mosley or Allen when it’s time to rush the quarterback. Worth noting here is that Alabama got some of its most consistent pressure from the position late when DE Jamar King split further outside than normal and came off as a strongside linebacker of sorts. Given that Alabama did not pull off redshirts and play either LaBryan Ray or VanDarius Cowan, as had been suggested earlier in the week, it will be interesting to see whether King or Da’Shawn Hand see more snaps at the position in a situational manner.
- Offensive line again has issues with consistency, assignments. This is starting to become the most frustrating part of our analysis columns every week, because Alabama’s offensive line continued to have a few breakdowns. Against Fresno State, there was no one hole that the Bulldogs could exploit over and over again; rather, pressure came sporadically from points all across the line. This wasn’t the finest hour for C Bradley Bozeman, and Alabama also had some issues at left guard. QB Jalen Hurts had more time this week than against Florida State a week before, but still had to scramble for yardage when edge containment broke down. This is starting to sound like a broken record, and may be one reason Alabama took the redshirts off Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills in this game. Once again, though, in the running game, the news was mostly positive, as Alabama kept negative plays all but out of the box score. But when Tua Tagovailoa came in at quarterback – and with it, a greater pocket presence at the expense of top-tier scrambling ability – pass protection became an issue across the board. It quickly became apparent why Hurts is the unquestioned starter for this team, as his ability to make yardage when the play breaks down is, unfortunately, an integral part of this offense right now. It’s hard to believe Saban has unlimited patience for this kind of performance.
- Offensive direction: Better execution, playcalling more on-point, but still room to improve. Brian Daboll’s second game as a playcaller went better than the first, although it’s hard to say how much of that was driven by the lesser quality of this week’s opponent. Alabama was determined to throw the ball in the early going, and it did help loosen up the box somewhat. Alabama made better use of its tight ends in this game, including a nicely-designed touchdown to Hale Hentges that saw both tight ends running go-routes from the same side of the field. There was better flow, and Alabama deliberately controlled the game’s pace, especially in the first half before mass substitutions became a thing. Again, though, this was FSU, not the FSU. Alabama still didn’t show much of a screen game, and most of its rushing yards came from Jalen Hurts, either scrambling out of trouble or on option plays. It may be 2-3 weeks before Alabama fans have a full picture of what the offense is trying to do under Daboll.
- Skill positions brought their A++ game. Even though they combined for just 68 yards on 12 carries, both Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough were key components to this win. Najee Harris got his first significant action, and rolled up 70 yards on 13 carries. The quarterbacks did their job well, and the receiver corps went drop-less in the game as well as doing a nice job coming back to balls and breaking off routes. On defense, the secondary helped ease the pain of Terrell Lewis’ and Christian Miller’s losses; CB Anthony Averett got his first interception, and Fresno State went 0-for-1 on throws targeting Levi Wallace’s man. For that matter, most of Fresno State’s success came in targeting throws that went through the linebacker zones – no surprise coming from a veteran coach like Jeff Tedford, who knew Alabama would be playing a step too cautiously there at times, and he moved to exploit it. The amount of skill talent Saban’s staff has amassed is almost unbelievable.
- Special teams, especially the kicking game itself, is proving its worth. Granted, PK Andy Pappanastos attempted no long field goals, but both his short kicks and all of his PATs were right down Broadway. Dating back to his Ole Miss days, Pappanastos has shown to like kicking in Bryant-Denny Stadium, and we’ll take all the good vibes we can get wherever placekickers are concerned. Punter J.K. Scott had another typical – synonym for “superb” in Scott’s parlance – day, pinning Fresno State deep on all his punts and short-circuiting the return game. With the exception of one long kickoff return allowed late, when Alabama had begun to substitute on its kick coverage units, Scott’s kickoffs are no worse than on par with what Adam Griffith was doing toward the end of his career. The key will be developing a placekicking game that extends beyond 40 yards. So far, Pappanastos has hit all attempts short of that distance in 2017, and missed both his attempts from longer yardages. If Alabama can fill that gap, this could turn into a team strength.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN