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By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 9, 2018
One of the challenges of evaluating Alabama wins in Weeks 2 and 3 during Nick Saban’s tenure is the tendency to oversell shortcomings that appear to pop up during those two games. For whatever reason, Alabama frequently looks like a good-but-not-great team in those weeks after beating good non-conference teams in the opener.
While Louisville was struggling to a 31-7 win over FCS Indiana State in a rain-delayed game Saturday, Alabama was facing off against an Arkansas State team picked by some prognosticators to win 10 games in 2018, maybe even more, win the Sun Belt Conference, and make a little noise in games against non-conference opponents Alabama and Tulsa.
The Red Wolves will get their chance next week against Tulsa; the only noise they made against Alabama was a thud.
Alabama throttled Arkansas State 57-7 and the score could have been much worse. Alabama effectively called off the dogs before halftime even arrived, and the second half was either spent killing clock or working on the running game, or both. Alabama threw all of 3 passes in the fourth quarter.
Still, the game was conspicuous for what Alabama didn’t do, and that was dominate on defense. Alabama gave up 391 yards in total offense, which was somewhat expected given Arkansas State’s Power 5-ready wide receiver corps and good quarterback. What wasn’t expected was for that total to be split 218 passing, 185 rushing, with the Crimson Tide yielding 5.6 yards every time Arkansas State handed off.
The reason this is troublesome? Take a look at the offense Ole Miss runs. It’s still the offense of Hugh Freeze, who brought it with him from Arkansas State, which still employs vestiges of it. If Alabama fans didn’t like the feeling in their stomachs watching Arkansas State run the ball effectively, they’ll need a case of Pepto Bismol to get through next week’s affair in Oxford, Miss.
Arkansas State didn’t have the raw talent to expose much about Alabama’s defense – which should be even more troubling given how a collection of SEC scout teamers ran the ball all over the place. But what it did do was show what happens when Alabama isn’t at full speed or full strength on defense. Mack Wilson looked OK but not great returning from a foot injury, but he was still light years ahead of some of his backups. Phidarian Mathis limped for most of the second half, and played like it. Isaiah Buggs appeared to dodge a major bullet in the first half, reinjuring an ankle, but he didn’t return to the lineup. With reserve linemen Stephon Wynn Jr. and now Johnny Dwight also sidelined, Alabama’s defensive line is suddenly perilously thin.
Not everything was cause for concern, though, and any win that comes by a 57-7 score should be notable for something good. That something was again the play of QB Tua Tagovailoa, only this time Alabama also got a solid afternoon from Jalen Hurts. Arkansas State’s secondary, which was a weak point last year and got weaker over the offseason due to graduation, was badly outclassed by Alabama’s receiver corps. The Red Wolf safeties were juked out of their shorts with such regularity, it looked like a Victoria’s Secret store had exploded at the 50.
Alabama did what it came to do – win, with no major injuries – but there are areas of the foundation that, if not cracked, at least needs some sealant applied. Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Arkansas State:
1. Offensive line continues to be inconsistent, and no one seems to know why. There probably hasn’t been as much raw talent in a starting five on an Alabama offensive line since … forever. Left to right, the five players getting starts in 2018 are the most talented Alabama has had since at least 2012, and maybe of all time. Yet Alabama didn’t effectively run the ball until Arkansas State was completely gassed in the second half and the Brahma bull named Najee Harris took over things. Harris had 137 yards on 13 carries, while Alabama’s other three backs had 93 yards on 22 carries, a somewhat pedestrian output.
Pass blocking wasn’t spectacular, although only one sack was allowed. Mostly, the issue was with quarterbacks taking hits as the ball was coming out, or being forced to escape the pocket. Most of the breakdowns appeared to come over the guard slots, and Deonte Brown got a late series with the 1s at right guard, possibly as a look for the future. This same problem was occurring last week, so it’s not a function of lack of focus against a lesser opponent. And whatever it is, it needs to stop. Tua Tagovailoa with a clean pocket equals a hailstorm of doom for opponents; his scrambling, on the other hand, tends to draw big hits.
2. Fans calling for more Tua, less Jalen miss the point. We don’t get off into messages to the fans often, but this one needs to be said: There is no reason for Tua Tagovailoa to play more than is absolutely necessary against lesser opponents. He doesn’t need the reps; he’s already had experience on the big stage. He will learn more from one scrimmage against his own secondary than he ever would from 60 minutes against Arkansas State. And since the objective at Alabama is championship trophies, the season has to be managed in a way that Tagovailoa is around for all of it. If that means he plays a single quarter against teams like Arkansas State, Louisiana and The Citadel, so be it. Fans might want to see him try to put up 80 points on an opponent, but unless that opponent is Auburn or there’s a trophy attached to it, such a performance has all the relevance of paint on an atmoic bomb.
As for Hurts, there’s already a second story going on here, namely whether he sits after four games played in order to save his redshirt year and then transfer with two years of eligibility. If that’s what’s going to happen, then Tua (and Jalen) may have played too much and Mac Jones too little, as he’s the only guy of the three who would get a benefit from more snaps against a defense this bad.
As for how Tagovailoa and Hurts played, both had solid games. Tagovailoa missed more short throws than usual but also hit on four home-run balls for touchdowns and it seems no down-and-distance combination is too much for him to overcome. Hurts had an ill-advised attempt at going airborne at the goal line, which resulted in a fumble, but his passing was on point, especially the quick-slant touchdown throw to Jerry Jeudy, which may have been the best throw any of the quarterbacks made all day given the pressure he was under. If fans are worried about who is the starter for Ole Miss, don’t be; Saban announced Tagovailoa as the starter early this week and there’s no reason to believe that the proclamation was good for only one week.
3. Suddenly, Alabama has real issues in the kicking game. Hopefully Joseph Bulovas will help quieten the grumbling about the placekicking, as he made his only field goal attempt and hit 4 PATs after taking over for Austin Jones. Jones, who looked solid in fall camp, just couldn’t seem to transition to live fire, not last week against Louisville and not this week, either. All of Bulovas’ kicks, meanwhile, were in the middle of the net, and his 40-yard field goal had plenty of room to spare. If this is a case of the yips for Jones, who was a solid kicker for Temple before transferring to Alabama, then expect Bulovas to continue to get the call.
Less obvious is Alabama’s issues at punter. Skyler DeLong had a poor day punting the ball, and the inability to flip the field is going to be a problem next week against Ole Miss. Whether Alabama gives Mike Bernier an audition on the road in the team’s SEC opener is not known, but it would seem unlikely. DeLong’s other issue was being slow to get the kick off on more than one occasion. Even punt returner Jaylen Waddle had a tough day. Hopefully this is just a one-week hiccup, but Alabama has heard this song many times before during Saban’s tenure and knows all the words to go along with the music.
4. Pass rush has got to get more consistent and keep containment better. The loss of Terrell Lewis and Christopher Allen has already been felt in a big way. Alabama recorded 2 sacks against Arkansas State and another 8 QB hurries. But on several of those hurries, Arkansas State quarterbacks simply scrambled away from the pressure, broke containment, and picked up chunks of yardage on the run. Again, these are issues that are going to be magnified once better quarterbacks – say, Ole Miss QB Jordan Ta’amu – are under center, not what Arkansas State had to offer. Alabama doesn’t appear to be getting enough edge pressure up front, and Anfernee Jennings still doesn’t look 100 percent at Jack linebacker.
5. Wide receiver corps could be Bama’s best-ever, top to bottom. There are other nits to pick, but we can’t leave a 57-7 game without throwing around some kudos. Alabama’s wide receiver corps, to include reserves as well as the tight end position, are probably about to go up against the one group of receivers in the conference that can match or exceed them. At the moment, opposing defenses looking to stop Alabama have to ask how to do it when there are as many as 8 players who can take over a game.
If Ole Miss is looking for something to worry about, let the Rebels worry about having three starters as dynamic and explosive as Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III, with a quarterback the caliber of Tua Tagovailoa firing darts at them. We haven’t seen a defensive back yet among Alabama’s opponents that could shut down any one of the three starters, and the bench includes guys like Jaylen Waddle and Tyrell Shavers. A cheer-within-a-cheer is also due fifth-year senior Derek Kief, who stuck around the program despite and unfavorable depth chart, and is now Alabama’s second receiver off the bench. His touchdown catch against Arkansas State was about as skilled as any, and more skilled than most. We would also be remiss if we didn’t make special mention of the work Irv Smith Jr. is doing at tight end. He’s supplanted Hale Hentges as the primary option there and ended up being one of the keys to Bama’s early success in this game.
Having this many weapons in the passing game makes Alabama dynamic in ways that it has rarely been, even in this program’s storied history. And it’s the primary reason Alabama doesn’t really fear the possibility of an Ole Miss upset next week the way it might otherwise, with a more plodding offense.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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