By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 18, 2018
If the main goal coming out of Alabama’s game against Mercer Saturday was to avoid major injuries, Alabama checked off that box.
If the goal was to give linebacker Dylan Moses as many snaps as possible to prepare him for Auburn, the Crimson Tide was able to do that, as well.
If the goal was get as many senior walk-ons into the game, or to work on offensive execution, or to get Tua Tagovailoa what might be his final snaps of the season … check, check and check.
Before the second quarter could get properly started, Alabama had already ended the game. On the first play of the period, Jalen Hurts hid Calvin Ridley for a 66-yard touchdown bomb down the home sidelines, making the score 21-0 and putting to bed any hopes Mercer might have had.
The Bears probably came into the game with at least a glimmer of hope, thanks to its hang-tough 24-10 loss to Auburn earlier in the year. But that game was fueled by five Auburn turnovers and a general malaise on the part of a Tiger team that was still trying to figure out whether it wanted Gus Malzahn to finish the season as head coach.
By the time Mercer got to Alabama, though, a couple of things had happened: First, Auburn showed itself to be a better team than it briefly looked while playing the Bears, and second, Alabama is a better offensive team than are the Tigers. Coupled with Alabama’s ability to not turn the ball over (until the game was already out of hand, at least), Mercer never got the opportunity to really hurt the Crimson Tide.
Mercer QB Kaelan Riley also proved to have too many limitations throwing the ball for Alabama to have to respect the pass. The Bears didn’t challenge Alabama downfield often, although they had some success in their first offensive drive. Once Alabama figured it could keep its defense inside 15 yards from the line of scrimmage and still defend 90 percent of the Bears’ playbook, the day turned ugly for Mercer.
Once Mercer missed on its best scoring opportunity of the day – a 53-yard field goal try that, had it been successful, would have been Mercer’s longest field goal on the year by a whopping 17 yards – clanked off the crossbar, the Bears seemed to fold up and accept their fate.
From there, it was simply a matter of pushing the right buttons. Alabama moved the ball at will, and after a couple of sleepy defensive series to start the game, shut down the Bears at will for the rest of the way in. Those two clunky defensive series, plus a pair of turnovers made by reserves, were the only things standing between Alabama and perfection – or, at least as close to perfect as a college football game could be.
Next up, of course, is Auburn, and with it the chance to further erase from Alabama fan memories the stench of losses in 2010 and 2013 that should never have happened. Auburn has been the closest thing to a stumbling block in Nick Saban’s Alabama career, and the fact the Tigers have been able to remain competitive on the national stage while Alabama was destroying most of the other SEC schools down to their foundations has been particularly hard to digest. It’s hard to defend saying anything from this win over Mercer will translate to next Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but at least Alabama didn’t lose any other key contributors in this game.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mercer:
1. Moses gets off to slow start, rebounds to record a solid day. Alabama committed to finding out what it had in Dylan Moses, to the point that last week’s starter, Keith Holcombe, didn’t even enter the game apart from special teams until the outcome was well out of doubt. Moses looked tentative his first couple of series – much the way he did last week in Starkville – but as he got more reps, he began to play with more instinct.
The next week is going to amount to a steep learning curve for Moses, who will be the presumptive starter heading into the Auburn game. Moses had 4 tackles for losses on the day – half of Alabama’s total – and led the team with 11 overall tackles. By the time Alabama pulled the starters out of the game completely, Moses looked right at home in the middle of Alabama’s defense. How that carries over to next week in a hostile environment remains to be seen, but Alabama could only be encouraged by what it saw out of Moses today.
2. Jalen Hurts is peaking at the right time. Hurts’ stat line for today: 7-of-7 passing, 180 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 INT; 2 carries, 30 yards. Hurts didn’t even make it to halftime before he was pulled for Tua Tagovailoa. Combine these with the numbers Hurts put up last week in Starkville, and the sophomore quarterback seems to be peaking at precisely the right time on Alabama’s schedule. Hurts looks comfortable running the offense, in tune with his adjustments and unflappable in the face of pressure. Again, hard to say how things will change once Hurts is facing Auburn’s vaunted front seven and not the defenses of Mississippi State and Mercer, but compared to last year, when Hurts seemed to wilt a bit when facing tough defenses, Alabama has to be happy with what it is seeing right now.
3. Alabama dodges major injuries, but a couple of key special-teamers are hurting. PK Andy Pappanastos was held out of this game with what Nick Saban later termed “a slight pull.” For position players, slight pulls are a fact of life and easily overcome; for kickers who need their timing to be on-point, slight pulls can be magnified. So here again, Alabama finds itself headed into Jordan-Hare Stadium with some questions about its placekicker. J.K. Scott did a fine job kicking PATs in Pappanastos’ absence, but there’s a difference between PATs and long field goals. Alabama hopes to have many of the former and none of the latter against Auburn, but history would suggest a different outcome. On another front, key kickoff coverage gunner Daniel Wright was injured to some degree in the middle of this game, and spent most of the second half watching in street clothes. Alabama’s coverage teams are weaker without him, but Wright didn’t appear terribly hurt while on the sideline. Hopefully it was just a precautionary measure.
4. How did Alabama replace LaBryan Ray at DE? It didn’t. LaBryan Ray, who was just starting to come into his own at defensive end, broke his foot in practice this week and will be out at least through the SEC Championship Game. Given Alabama’s history with short-rotation defensive lines (i.e., the history is poor, and one of the reasons for the loss to Clemson last year, if not the main reason), it was a point of focus coming into this game how Alabama would replace Ray. Would Alabama replace him with little-used Jamar King? Take the redshirt off Phidarian Mathis? Play Johnny Dwight out of position? The answer was none of the above; Alabama simply gave more snaps to Da’Shawn Hand, Joshua Frazier and Quinnen Williams, and it appears that’s going to be the plan moving forward. It’s risky, given the evidence on hand from 2016, but that’s going to be Bama’s play in this situation.
5. Nick Saban showed uncommon fondness for this senior class; Jamar King has a unique moment in pregame. Alabama may very well have played every walk-on senior on the roster Saturday, to the point that Saban called a timeout with less than a minute to go in the game so Alabama could punt the ball back to Mercer and thus get S Bo Grant and DE Vohn Keith Jr. onto the field. Saban had taken some heat in the media last year for not finding a way to get RB Lawrence Erikosima into the game after his mother had flown back to the United States from a combat assignment to watch him. There would be no repeat of that criticism this year, as Alabama emptied the bench on both sides and got several walk-ons not just a few snaps, but a meaningful amount. And then there was the case of DE Jamar King. While not a walk-on, King’s story (click here to read: https://bamablog.wpengine.com/?p=29875) is a unique one among Alabama’s current players.
What was also unique today was that King had no family with him for senior day. Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar therefore stood with King as he was honored, even holding the rose Alabama traditionally reserves for the mothers of players. There is an opening, however slight, for King to see action in Alabama’s last few games. With the number of injuries Alabama has suffered, most recently to LaBryan Ray, King theoretically could find himself playing when the chips are down. Alabama has been slow to modify its playing rotation along the line, however, so the chances are not high, but if King does get a chance, he’ll likely do so as a crowd favorite anyway. And we didn’t even touch on Alabama purposefully leaving senior WR Cameron Sims in the game long enough to get his first touchdown catch. In all, this was the best-handled Senior Day of Nick Saban’s Alabama career.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN