By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 23, 2018
As the Texas A&M Aggies went into halftime Saturday, they were faced with the reality that despite doing everything just about as perfectly as they could have in the first half, they still gave up more than a point a minute to Alabama’s offense.
It’s a piece of performance theatre that played its fourth act of the season against the Aggies. It won’t be the final act, either.
Alabama is killing people through the air right now thanks to Tua Tagovailoa, a peerless wide receiver corps, and an offensive line that has perfected the art of pass protection. Tagovailoa was not sacked a single time against Texas A&M, and was left mostly clean besides. He took only one squared-up hit (yes, he completed the pass, another third-and-long, gotta-have-it rope to Jerry Jeudy) and was able to mostly stand still in the pocket and pick apart an Aggie secondary that was borderline to begin with, and was then rendered inept when safety Donovan Wilson was ejected following a targeting call that was, to be kind, borderline.
Tagovailoa threw 4 touchdown passes, ran for a fifth, and did it in a way that a lot of people are wondering if the guy is even a human being. Such touch, such accuracy, so effortless in his methods that several NFL teams’ fan bases already have “Tank For Tua” campaigns going on, even though he isn’t draft-eligible until 2020.
It’s very likely Tagovailoa will leave Alabama the best quarterback in its history. Better than Namath, better than Stabler, better than Barker, Hollingsworth, Gilmer, McCarron, Coker, Sims, all of them. Heck, he already might be.
So now that we’ve pumped in enough rat poison to land the little critters on the endangered species list, let’s talk about what didn’t go right Saturday, the stuff Tua covered up by making Texas A&M’s defense the victim of an old 80’s-arcade-style “Missile Command” attack. And there’s quite a bit to mention.
Nick Saban practically begged the media to be negative in its coverage after the game. It’s hard for even the best writers to do, seeing as how Alabama rolled up 524 yards in total offense, including 415 through the air, and out-sacked the Aggies 7-0.
But we’ll try.
Texas A&M came into the game a good rush defense team, much improved in that area over 2017, with a defensive line that could cause issues by clogging running lanes. We talked about ends Landis Durham and Kingsley Keke in the game preview. Those two combined for 11 tackles, and the Aggies had 7 tackles for loss, nearly a third of its season total coming in this game alone. Aside from one long run from Damien Harris, Alabama simply didn’t move the pile, didn’t assert its will in the running game, and left the game in Tua’s hands out of necessity rather than as an option.
Being a dominating running team has never been a requirement for success. But being a competent running team is. Nearly any team that wins the SEC does one thing extremely well, run or pass, and the other competently. Even the most high-flying of Steve Spurrier’s Florida teams weren’t successful in years where the running game didn’t pull its weight.
The other issue there is that next week’s contest is likely to result in some false positives, as Louisiana isn’t going to be able to stop much of anything. And then Alabama travels to Arkansas, which is hapless to the point of ridicule. It will be three weeks from now, in a game against a team that can go punch-for-punch in the passing game – Missouri – before Alabama will get another chance to get a decent read on its running game.
Alabama was just fundamentally OK in this game. Tua’s heroics covered that up. Nick Saban knows the truth, though, and you can bet the next two weeks of practice are going to be spent figuring out how to get tougher in the trenches when the game moves downhill. Tua Tagovailoa may be the best college quarterback of the last decade – for that matter, he could go on to do everything right and never make a mistake and even prove to be the best of all-time, but he would still need better performances from his supporting cast to keep the heat off.
We’ll talk about some of that – and some of the good, too – in the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Texas A&M:
1. Fisher’s plan to hold Alabama in base formation could have worked with more from QB Kellen Mond. Jimbo Fisher, if nothing else, knows Nick Saban and his tendencies. Few may have expected to see so much of walk-on fullback Cullen Gillaspia, the guy who wears the fabled No. 12, but every time he was on the field he had the potential to cause issues for Alabama. That’s because when an opponent goes I-formation against Alabama, it forces Bama into its base 3-4 alignment – and no one had done that yet in 2018. So when Alabama had to answer A&M’s power formations early, it was doing so with a personnel grouping that hadn’t played together outside of practice situations. A couple of early busts looked like it would lead to A&M being able to answer Bama scores with regularity, but Alabama stiffened in the red zone (see point #2, below) and Tua was simply too much for Fisher to match.
The big issue for Texas A&M is that Kellen Mond is a spread quarterback, not an I-formation, play-action QB. Accuracy is not his strong point, and he’s most effective when he can get in space and create. Fisher had to pick his poison in regards to Alabama’s defense; we can’t say he chose unwisely, as there might not have been a right choice to make in this situation. However, had Mond not sprayed the ball on several early intermediate throws, this could have been a more competitive game. Building the game plan around the presence of a guy who wins a walk-on competition to be primarily a special-teamer was an attempt to draw to an inside straight, and it failed.
2. Secondary held its own against Mond; containment did not. Once Fisher saw what Mond could do in space, the game plan changed, but it was too late. However, the fact Mond had more than 110 yards rushing at the half (only to fall back below the 100-yard mark in the third quarter due to sack yardage lost) was proof Alabama didn’t have this figured out in the early going. Whenever Alabama would get into man coverage with safeties dropping deep, Mond had one guy to worry about, typically the strongside defensive end. Get by him and it was running time. Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings had issues keeping the edge set, and a couple of times when the ends did hold the point, the safety crashed too far inside and got caught up in the trash, as Shyheim Carter did on one of Trayveon Williams’ longer runs.
It seems like Alabama has fought this issue with Aggie quarterbacks forever – it was one of the big issues that got Bama beat against a Johnny Manziel-led A&M squad in 2012. This is where Terrell Lewis’ loss has been most felt, and we’ll have to watch whether snap counts go up for Jamey Mosley, especially, as well as Eyobi Anoma, or even Josh McMillon at an outside spot. If there is a bright side, though, plays like this tend to only work outside the red zone; take away the need to drop safeties 30 yards past the line of scrimmage, and there are more bodies for a quarterback to get through on the way to the end zone.
3. Pass rush continues to pick up; interior players contributing more. Alabama got 7 sacks in the game, exactly half of them from the interior push. In actuality, 3 of those 3.5 interior sacks came from one guy, Isaiah Buggs, who played his best game of 2018 so far, but Alabama got consistent pressure from Quinnen Williams and Raekwon Davis as well. Williams’ snap counts were lower than in some of Bama’s earlier contests, but he was still disruptive and forced a lot of plays away from his position. Davis had 4 QB hurries to lead the team. Alabama’s other partial sack from the interior came from Johnny Dwight, who delivered a piledriver of a shot on the game’s final play and was mobbed by his teammates for it. Dwight’s path to playing time has been longer than most, amid rumors that former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt wasn’t as high on his abilities as the new group of assistants have been. Obviously there was something that resonated with his teammates, for him to get the reaction he got from them. The best thing about Dwight’s contributions is that it gives Alabama a complete second set of DL that can rotate in.
Alabama’s other sacks were split between OLBs Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings, while Xavier McKinney got one on a safety blitz. Most, however, seemed to come in the second half after Alabama’s offense had pulled out to a lead so large that Texas A&M had to abandon the running game altogether. The point to make here is that Alabama’s defensive line continues to improve in getting to the quarterback and applying pressure even on plays where they don’t make it there.
4. Saban was not happy with the offensive line. He had company: We touched on it in the main portion of this write-up, but Alabama really had a poor day blocking in the ground game. Damien Harris’ one long run came after he bounced the play outside and caught Texas A&M’s strongside defensive end peeking. The middle of the Aggie defense was a no-go zone for much of the day. Najee Harris found limited success but neither Damien Harris nor Josh Jacobs were able to do much. Take away Harris’ one long run and he had 6 carries for 17 yards. The problems once again seemed to stem mostly from the guard slots, although center Ross Pierschbacher struggled some on his own. In pass protection, it was a much different story, although Alabama did catch a pair of holding flags.
The balance of a successful football team is much like golf: A laser-focused passing game is akin to those days when all the putts are dropping, but there will be days when the putts don’t fall. Then you have to worry about hitting fairways and greens in regulation to give yourself a shot to win. That’s the running game. And if Alabama’s passing attack stumbles – say, against an LSU or Georgia, or even an Auburn or Missouri – then it’s going to need some of those greens and fairways. Alabama played from the rough much too often Saturday.
5. The punting game is approaching disaster status. We wanted to use this last point to give a salute to the under-hyped guys who made a difference – guys like Johnny Dwight, or Hale Hentges, or Joseph Bulovas – but unfortunately the Crimson Tide’s punting game has turned into a biohazard. Skyler DeLong ended up averaging 36 yards a punt, but only because he got a very charitable roll off a late punt he sort of skulled across the Bryant-Denny turf. Two punts traveled 30 yards or less, including one that went a total of 13. The delivery “hitch” returned, and one punt came dangerously close to being blocked because of it. Mike Bernier never warmed up, so it doesn’t appear Alabama had any other plan than to let DeLong work out the kinks, but this problem has gone well beyond the point of needing some intense one-on-one attention in practice. It would be interesting to get a direct response from Saban as to whether the coaches are considering other options.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN