By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 29, 2018
For three quarters of football, there weren’t enough sterling adjectives to describe just how talented this Alabama football team is and how dominant it has become.
Alabama broke out to a 49-0 lead at the half over Louisiana, then added another score in the third quarter before the air sort of went out of the ball in the fourth quarter. Nick Saban certainly can’t mind that, because it gives himself something to focus on for the upcoming week.
“Things to do Monday: Work on third-string defensive intensity after we’re up by 50.”
Louisiana (or Louisiana-Lafayette still, depending on the size of the Ragin’ Cajun standing next to you insisting they dropped the “Lafayette” years ago) came equipped with a good run game and a stable of running backs that would not be out of place in a much larger conference, even the SEC. Starter Trey Ragas ran for 111 yards and backup Elijah Mitchell for 85. Both players could make the rotation for half the schools in the SEC East, and if they show up again next week wearing Arkansas jerseys, it will cut the betting line by at least a touchdown.
But Louisiana brought nothing else. Quarterback play was poor, tackling was poor, and the decision to ever punt to Jaylen Waddle – also poor. Alabama mangled the Ragin’ Cajuns before the half, and with the starting Alabama defense in the game, Ragas and Mitchell were at least held in check.
There isn’t much about a game like this that matters in the long run. Avoiding injuries matters. Alabama couldn’t avoid getting players banged up a little – LT Jonah Williams probably caught the worst of that, but WR Henry Ruggs III, RT Jedrick Wills, DT Quinnen Williams and S Deionte Thompson all missed time – but no one was lost for the season. With that accomplishment in hand, it’s simply on to the next one.
The other big story from the day was QB Jalen Hurts playing. It marks his fifth game of playing time, meaning a redshirt is off the table. One of Nick Saban’s lesser-heralded abilities is the ability to get so many elite athletes playing together as a team, committed to each other and each other’s success, rather than their own individual numbers. The impact of such a skill goes far deeper than the stat sheets, and means more once the postseason comes near. And if Alabama keeps playing like this, a deep postseason run is all but assured.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Louisiana:
1. Ragin’ Cajuns couldn’t keep up with Alabama’s athleticism on the edges. This went both ways, offensively and defensively, but the issue was most evident when Alabama’s wide receivers were working against Louisiana’s defensive backs. Alabama’s quarterbacks were collectively 13-of-16 (81.3%) for 340 yards and 4 touchdowns. That’s an average of 26.2 yards per completion and 21.3 yards per attempt. Flipped around, Louisiana went 11-of-20 (55.0%) for 88 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Louisiana’s wide receivers got no separation from Alabama defenders in one-on-one matchup situations. The only thing that stopped Alabama’s offensive attack was the kindness of Nick Saban’s heart.
2. Alabama’s running back group has a little something for everyone. There’s a pretty good chance Alabama finishes the year without a 1,000-yard rusher, and it might not matter at all. Starter Damien Harris only got 5 carries as Alabama worked on players down the depth chart. The Crimson Tide used 6 different running backs, each bringing a different skill set into the game, and anyone who watched the end of the Clemson-Syracuse game Saturday could see what a problem that is for defensive coordinators. Alabama appeared to concentrate more on downhill running formations throughout the game, rather than lateral, spread-format runs. It’s hard to gauge effectiveness against an overmatched team like Louisiana, but nothing overtly negative jumped out. If Alabama gets its running game back in its proper lane, look out.
3. Two missed kicks marred a great special teams day. There is the kicking game, and then there is the special teams unit, and it’s a bit like squares and rectangles: all squares are rectangles, but all rectangles are not squares. Against Louisiana, Alabama’s kickoff and block-return games were all on-point. Jaylen Waddle is good enough already that no team should do anything other than kick directionally or utilize a delayed, rugby-style punt. Louisiana kicked off short once to try to avoid Josh Jacobs, and instead found the ball in the hands of an upback – who just happened to be a running back, Brian Robinson Jr., and he returned it across the 50. Derek Kief blocked a punt after making a nice adjustment to get around a block. But Joseph Bulovas took a step backward, missing kicks from both hashes, leaving fans once again to adopt “go for it” as their default setting for any fourth-down situation. And with Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, it might actually not be a bad idea.
4. Offensive line had a better day in the face of adversity, but curb your enthusiasm. Losing both tackles during the game forced Alabama to play Chris Owens at left tackle for much of the game, a spot he has rarely any game experience in whatsoever. When Wills went down at right tackle, Matt Womack got his first action of the year after returning from a foot injury. For once this year, the middle of the Bama OL held its own with consistency. Now here’s the splash of cold water: This was Louisiana that Alabama was playing today. The Ragin’ Cajuns had only 3 or 4 players above the 250-pound line, and it doesn’t take much for an SEC line to move something that small around. Still, Alabama running backs lost a cumulative 2 yards and Hurts lost 6. The line yielded a single sack. Given the personnel issues, it was a good day.
5. Billy Napier found a formula late that worked in regards to running the ball. Louisiana went bunch formation and then ran up the middle, all the way to two fourth-quarter scores. Alabama was sketchy in run defense all day, but couldn’t stop the Ragin’ Cajuns in the fourth. It’s not just a personnel issue in play, either; Alabama’s defensive line personnel, for both of Louisiana’s touchdowns, are players that regularly rotate with the 1s at that spot. Where Alabama really suffered was at the second and third levels. Alabama’s reserve safeties never reacted as they should have to the inside run, and the second-string linebacker duo of Markail Benton and Josh McMillon didn’t step up, either. Alabama took poor run fits up front and from the linebackers. McMillon finished the day as the second-leading tackler for Alabama with 6 total, but they mostly occurred well downfield. Don’t think for a minute that another team from Louisiana wasn’t sitting there watching and taking notes.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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