By Jess NicholasTideFans.com
Oct. 6, 2018
One of the great challenges of watching the 2018 Alabama football team play is convincing people that when the offense, directed by Tua Tagovailoa, is capable of scoring points at will, there remain significant areas of concern that could affect Bama’s march back to the college football title game.
The well-worn story of placekicking woes has almost reached meme status, and even though every kicking situation this year will be accompanied by rosary beads, lucky ballcaps turned backwards and whatnot, the kicking game looks like a much lesser of several evils coming out of Bama’s 65-31 win over Arkansas.
Defensively, Alabama either didn’t have the right plan in place, the right people to execute it or the ability to execute it. Or maybe it was a concentration issue, but that sounds like a cop-out, quite frankly. There’s something going on in the middle of Alabama’s defense. Texas A&M found it, and Arkansas exploited it.
The major problem with that scenario is that of all the teams left on Alabama’s schedule, only The Citadel is less potent of an offensive ballclub. Auburn and Mississippi State are struggling, but both teams have superior quarterback talent and Auburn has better receivers even with recent injuries and defections. Missouri has an offense much more electric than Arkansas’, and LSU’s running game allows it to get away with less dynamic quarterback play. The real concern, though, is in the postseason, where presumptive SEC East representative Georgia, plus whoever Alabama faces in the College Football Playoff, would be able to exploit the same weaknesses.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about another hot start, which has allowed the Crimson Tide to pin opponents so far behind that halftime feels more like a debriefing than it does a rallying point. Alabama led this one 41-14 at the half, and even with Arkansas’ offense giving Alabama problems, the Tide outscored the Razorbacks in all four quarters.
Tua Tagovailoa showed again why he’s the Heisman front-runner, and if the NFL could get away with legalizing a one-year exception for true sophomores to be draft-eligible, it would be happening. Alabama even used Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts together for a few plays and the success of that package, plus knowing what it could become with additional wrinkles and good pass blocking, means we’ll almost certainly see it again in 2018.
Alabama’s offensive playcalling at this point involves a blindfold, a pin and a donkey’s tail, with the play sheet hanging from a wall in the press box. Just pin it somewhere and watch it work. Everything worked against Arkansas, outside of an early fourth-down call into the teeth of the Razorback defense that was a questionable call mixed with poor execution.
Even the running game got on track, as Damien Harris broke the 100-yard mark and Najee Harris gashed the Razorback front on each of his 7 carries. Alabama protected the quarterback well, involved the tight ends in the offensive gameplan again and generally made a mess of a Razorback defense that wasn’t that bad coming into the game.
And yet, this is a one-level depth chart at the moment, at least defensively. Any injury to any major contributor is going to be felt, especially to one of the starters in the front seven. So far, the only young player to truly step up from the second- and third-team groups is OLB Eyabi Anoma, who adds value as a late-game pass rusher but still isn’t filled out enough to be a consistent contributor against the run.
Missouri comes to town next week, bringing with it the best passing attack Alabama has faced yet. The Tiger defense is still a liability, though, making it unlikely even with QB Drew Lock and a slew of talented receivers that Alabama will lose that game. But unless the defense experiences an awakening of sorts, it could be a much tighter game than this one was, and the first true shootout of the Tagovailoa era.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Arkansas:
1. Inside linebacker play was … well, it was horrible. This might have been the worst effort from an ILB group in a Bama victory during the Nick Saban era. Dylan Moses finally broke through with a deflected pass that safety Shyheim Carter then intercepted and returned for a score, but his run fits varied in effectiveness. For the game, he had 3 solo tackles and 7 assists. MLB Mack Wilson? He had no solo tackles, despite Arkansas running the ball 31 times and throwing several times directly into his zone of responsibility. Wilson played tentatively, was frequently out of position and got caught up in mess around the line of scrimmage. Josh McMillon played some late in relief, but the results, while better, weren’t better by enough to matter. True freshman Brandon Ale Kaho also got some work in, apparently taking the place in the depth chart of Markail Benton, but he looks like a safety at the moment, so far behind as he is in regards to strength and conditioning work. The troubling truth of the matter is there’s not a better option right now, and if Wilson were to go down for any length of time, the odds are even as to whether McMillon would replace him, or Christian Miller slide over from strongside linebacker/defensive end, where he is starting to become a strong point of the defense. If a defensive lineman or a defensive back wasn’t making the play, the play wasn’t getting made, basically.
2. Defensive gameplan may have been off, and halftime adjustments didn’t cure it. While most of the attention was on the offensive assistants this past offseason, co-defensive coordinators Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding flew under the radar somewhat due to the defense being Nick Saban’s in all but name only. After the Texas A&M and Arkansas games, though, it might be time to ask if everything on the defensive side of the ball is OK. Alabama’s second halves have been hard to judge this year, as Tagovailoa is typically out of the game by that point and the offense is in kill-the-clock mode. But whereas Alabama has been able over the Saban years to toughen up in the second halves of games, preserve shutouts and get offenses off the field, the 2018 Crimson Tide is a different animal. The move at quarterback from Cole Kelley to Ty Storey may have been the real catalyst, but Alabama let Arkansas get away with things in this game that the Razorbacks haven’t come close to achieving at any point up to now. Auburn yielded 3 points; Alabama gave up 31. Arkansas ran up 405 yards of total offense, including 172 on the ground. Rakeem Boyd carried 15 times for 102 yards. The Razorbacks averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a team. The defense couldn’t contain Storey behind the line of scrimmage, and his passing numbers (25-of-39, 64.1%, 230 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) were better than expected. It’s understandable for Alabama to get caught flat-footed on personnel changes, especially this early in Chad Morris’ tenure as Arkansas coach, but the lack of adjustment in-game is troubling.
3. Offensive line played its best game, especially in pass protection. Arkansas’ front seven came into this game with a good reputation, and then proceeded to get stoned by the Alabama offensive front. Alabama rolled up 249 yards on the ground and added another 393 through the air. The Tide kept the pocket clean for both Tagovailoa and Hurts, and aside from the early fourth-down failure, could pretty much do as it pleased. That’s not an insignificant achievement, coming as it did against Arkansas. While Alabama won’t see an offense as mediocre as Arkansas’ again for awhile, the Tide also won’t see a defensive front better than Arkansas’ until LSU. The combination of the talent of Tagovailoa and the linemen, and the way Bama’s playcalling disrupts defenses’ comfort zones, helps cover up a lot of issues on defense.
4. It wouldn’t be a week without a special teams misfire (or two). There has to be a reason why Alabama must suffer from miscues in the kicking game on a regular basis. For the players caught up in those miscues, after awhile, basic human sympathy takes over among even the most anti-Bama of onlookers, and everyone begins to hope for the end of the persecution. In this game, Joseph Bulovas managed to hit another upright, this time on a PAT. Then the Tide lost its composure on its final kickoff, allowing a huge return down the near sideline. The kickoff return could be blamed on a lapse in concentration and new players being on the return unit late in the game, but in the modern college game, the only time a PAT should be missed is on a catastrophically bad hold or snap, or an offensive lineman falling asleep and letting a defender through to block the kick. Yet Alabama has found ways to miss multiple PATs on the year, first with a grad transfer kicker with a sterling resume and now from a highly-ranked recruit. Bulovas did rebound to make a short field goal later in the game, but please, someone stop the insanity.
5. The unending praise of Tua sometimes overlooks the contributions from his receivers. As good as Tagovailoa is at quarterback, the engine doesn’t run without the wide receivers, and Bama’s continue to make a case for being the best in the business. Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and now Jaylen Waddle have no problems getting open or in hanging onto the ball on tough catches. Jeudy’s runaway from the Arkansas secondary was a thing of beauty to watch. And in most years, where the discussion is over whether Alabama might have multiple 1,000-yard runners, the question in 2018 is whether the Tide will have two (or three) 1,000-yard receivers. It’s an achievement certainly within reach. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. went over the 100-yard mark in this game along with Jeudy, further cementing him as a weapon in this varied and versatile attack. Prior to the season, the Ole Miss receiver group looked like a clear No. 1 among SEC teams. That pick isn’t so clear anymore.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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