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By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 7, 2017
Alabama football is about competing for national championships, not just having solid seasons. For teams that aspire to the level of “good,” a win like Alabama’s 27-19 triumph over Texas A&M would be something to brag about.
For Alabama, this was a step backward, maybe more.
Alabama could theoretically put this game into the positive column somewhere down the road, but only if it learns from the many negatives – most of them self-inflicted.
Coaches quietly like games like this if they can be used as teaching tools. If every game in the regular season comes up blowout, there is no adversity, no chance to see how a team performs under pressure. Alabama’s performance under pressure was so two-faced, Janus wanted to ask it out on a date.
Alabama’s offense – aside from a single, long touchdown run in the first quarter from Damien Harris – sputtered all night, right up until the final drive of the game, where the Crimson Tide needed to run clock and come away with a score, and did both things. The defense, which had held A&M in check all night, gave up too many big plays in the fourth quarter and let the Kellen Mond do a much-too-accurate Johnny Manziel impersonation on a long pass to set up an easy touchdown to pull the Aggies within a single score.
Along the way, Alabama lost WR Calvin Ridley, but there is no word yet on how long he’ll be out. Ridley didn’t appear to be terribly crestfallen about the matter on the sidelines, which probably points to something he can manage in time for Bama’s next opponent. But the bigger loss might end up being the loss of confidence from an offensive line that had spent two weeks working itself into something from mid-90s Nebraska.
While everything TideFans.com profiled about Texas A&M is true – Kyle Field is a tough place to play, the Aggies are more physical under Noel Mazzone and play better in the second half of games than in years past, etc. – what is also true is that Texas A&M mostly abandoned its running game, doubled down on its passing-game-run-by-a-chipmunk-quarterback offense, and mostly beat Alabama’s offensive line straight-up. That’s not a harbinger of good things to come if you’re Alabama, because there are better teams like Auburn and potentially Georgia waiting on the schedule.
It seems odd to say given their history of producing physical teams, but Alabama might catch a small break next week against the Razorbacks of Arkansas. Arkansas has not looked like the same team it was a year ago, and Alabama needs to play a lot of players and get as healthy as possible. It’s certainly not time to panic by any means, but Alabama almost picked the most inopportune moment left on its schedule – other than the Auburn game, of course – to decide to play with no direction and minimal composure.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Texas A&M:
1. Alabama’s interior line lost too many battles, particularly up the middle. After two weeks of playing like they had “CAT Diesel” stickers on their helmets, Alabama’s offensive line was scattershot at best against Texas A&M, if not outright bad. No one played well, although the problems were mostly contained to the center and guard slots. Jalen Hurts had too much pressure in his face for most of the night, and Alabama should be thankful Damien Harris has the kind of vision he does, because without it these two teams might still be playing in overtime.
Bradley Bozeman missed a couple of days of practice this week with injury, so that might have accounted for his struggles, but Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton had no such excuse. The entire A&M front, but especially Kingsley Keke and Zaycoven Henderson, stoned Alabama’s interior blockers, redirected running backs and forced Hurts to scramble away from his strong (right) side and into as many bad situations as he was able to escape. We profiled that this matchup would be close to a push, but it was never that. Alabama never got close to “push” territory. Texas A&M won the day up front against Alabama’s OL, and the worst news is that there are 2-3 teams with stronger DLs on Alabama’s future schedule.
2. For the first time all year, Alabama’s composure and focus under fire comes into question. There were plenty of examples: Jalen Hurts looking visibly uncomfortable under pressure; punter J.K. Scott botching a punt, then having another one blocked when Keaton Anderson failed to execute a protection block properly; multiple breakdowns in the offensive line; WR Robert Foster with a costly drop followed by a fumble.
Alabama appeared to be dragging itself through the game, rather than attacking it. Alabama’s defense mostly escaped this criticism – DL Isaiah Buggs, for instance had 10 tackles and disrupted the left side of Texas A&M’s offensive line from kickoff to the final gun – until the last 5-6 minutes of the game, when suddenly a true freshman quarterback for Texas A&M appeared to have a better grasp on the game than all 11 Alabama defenders.
Nick Saban addressed the matter head-on in his post-game press conference – although he redirected his shot somewhat through the media, complaining about all the rosy press Alabama had received the last two week. While the media will try (and fail) to figure out what they have to do to make Saban happy with them, the message was ultimately aimed at the players: Stop playing like the game has already been decided.
3. Iffy playcalling, a handful of bad QB plays made things worse than they should have been. Stats often lie, but there is a measure of truth to them as well, which infuriates coaches who sometimes want to believe that imposing one’s will on the opposition is a simple task. Alabama apparently looked at Texas A&M’s stats against the run and pshawed it away, reading them as a mirage. They weren’t. But Alabama never did truly attack the weakness of the A&M defense, which was lack of pass defense set up by threat of the run via play-action.
Alabama might be given a pass on that if Bama’s coaches foresaw the inconsistency by which the officiating crew was going to handle matters of holding and pass interference (side note: Matt Austin’s crew, usually one of the SEC’s best, had a terrible night), but more likely, this was a function of deciding somewhere around Tuesday this week that the best way to attack A&M’s defense was in its face, up the middle. There weren’t many RPO plays called by comparison, not enough hard play-action, and Alabama’s screen game is still junk.
Jalen Hurts didn’t help matters by selecting the wrong receiver on a couple of plays in which he had other receivers running open in the pattern, and whoever made the RPO call on third down just prior to Alabama’s last field goal ought to have his headset muted. This looked like paralysis brought about by having too many weapons, and not knowing how to properly prioritize them. This same complaint was levied against Brian Daboll and the offensive staff against Florida State.
4. Injuries beginning to be more than a nuisance. Alabama is hardly in control of this, but it’s still a factor. Bozeman’s still-unreported injury earlier in the week (word around the program was it was a hand injury), Ridley’s thigh injury was enough to take him out of a key situation, and now the potential loss of Tony Brown to a knee injury just adds onto the list of troubling injuries to key personnel. Fortunately, no program does depth like Alabama, but it would be nice for once for the Crimson Tide not to come up at the rear of the pack in injury luck. It appears Bozeman and Ridley will be close to 100 percent, if not at it, for the Arkansas game next week, but Alabama will still be looking expectantly for the return of Da’Shawn Hand and Trevon Diggs sooner rather than later.
If it weren’t for Levi Wallace, Andy Pappanastos would be the talk of the team re: biggest story of the fall.
— Jess Nicholas (@TideFansJessN) October 8, 2017
5. Notable performances include Ray, Jennings, Pappanastos: DE LaBryan Ray didn’t play a lot, but when he did he was effective, including getting a key sack on Kellen Mond in what turned out to be Alabama’s most critical defensive stand of the game. LB Anfernee Jennings has gone from being a role player and a guy expected to be a key against only the running game, into a well-balanced outside linebacker whose strength belies his size, much to the dismay of offensive guards and tackles.
PK Andy Pappanastos would almost certainly be the story of the team were it not for the emergence of fellow walk-on Levi Wallace. Pappanastos’ two crucial field goals – including a 44-yarder to more or less assure Alabama of a fate no worse than overtime – continue to paint a feel-good story of a boyhood Bama fan who took the plunge and transferred back home, and managed to hold off two other kickers with arguably better raw skills to win the job.
These weren’t the only ones having good games against Texas A&M; the entire defensive line performed admirably, and reserve linebacker Keith Holcombe was highly effective in a limited role. Safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison played some of their best football yet at Alabama, and Harrison in particular deserves kudos for improving his coverage skills immensely since a difficult freshman year.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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