By Jess Nicholas
Oct. 14, 2018
The way Alabama’s offense can score points may mean the 2018 season goes by without a truly close shave, margin-wise, but don’t for one second think Alabama’s victory over Missouri wasn’t an epic gut check.
In a strange game that saw Bama lose three starters to injury, Tua Tagovailoa lose the football on a sack, and the Tide record a 12-yard punt, somehow the Crimson Tide managed a 29-point victory anyway. A lot of that came from doing what some fans have been waiting on this team to do all year: step up and show some real backbone in the face of a physical opponent.
For whatever reason, Missouri has never been able to put up great defensive numbers under head coach Barry Odom, who previously served as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. Missouri came into this game terrible in pass defense; they’ll leave it even worse, statistically, thanks to a combined 380 yards passing from Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts, and a gaudy 12.7 yards per completion. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Tagovailoa was just 12-of-22 (Hurts went 7-of-8 to help salvage the team completion percentage) and was harassed into several, uncharacteristically bad throws. It was a defensive performance most of Alabama’s future 2018 opponents – at least the able-bodied ones; step to the back of the line, Auburn – will try to emulate.
What Odom’s defense was able to do, if not stop the Bama passing attack, was at least make the Crimson Tide work for every yard it got. Missouri’s front six (the Tigers were in nickel for practically the whole game) yielded 184 rushing yards, but those yards came with punishing hits at the end of them, and Alabama averaged just 4.1 yards per carry along the way.
Moreover, Odom’s offense also dished out as much as it took, at least in the first half. Rather than try to challenge the Bama secondary, Missouri focused on the running game and tried to isolate Alabama’s linebackers. Not only did this beleaguered unit answer the call, but when Missouri did try to target Trevon Diggs’ replacement Saivion Smith, Smith responded by picking off two passes.
All this in a rowdy Homecoming environment that saw the return of crowd sing-along favorite “Dixieland Delight” once again pouring from the loudspeakers at the start of the fourth quarter, a first-quarter drive that saw Jalen Hurts line up as a running back and receiver and throw a pass and catch one on successive downs, and feature a Tua Tagovailoa trip to the medical tent in which he was joined by his mother only to spring forth after several minutes and go rally the offensive huddle. Raekwon Davis getting flagged for punching a Missouri player – a foul that might keep him out of the Tennessee game next week after the SEC reviews the tape – was the splash of hot sauce on top of it all.
Part tent revival, part football-flavored grindhouse film, all staged during a weird weekend that saw multiple top-10 teams lose and Tennessee get its first SEC win in two years and do it in Jordan-Hare Stadium to boot. If this was vintage Alabama football, it came from strange grapes indeed.
With Georgia losing at LSU, it appears unlikely the SEC will get two teams into the College Football Playoff. It also makes Alabama’s game against the Tigers in early November that much more of a circus, and it and the UT upset of Auburn both further underline the stakes and risks of showing up to a game unprepared. Alabama has to keep its offensive high-wire act going if it plans on defending its title, but it also has to avoid the near-disaster the Missouri win could have been if injury luck had broken a different way.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Missouri:
1. Tua’s injury was disquieting, but it also seemed to toughen the Tide. Let’s be frank, there’s been a tendency all year for Alabama’s players to think, “Don’t worry, Tua will fix it” if the defense blows a coverage or the running game fails to engage. For several minutes Saturday, that particular Plan B went away. From the time Tagovailoa re-injured his knee during a slide to the time he reemerged from the tent to join his teammates, Alabama suddenly found itself without its most dynamic weapon. The coaches, though, have to be thrilled with how Alabama responded. A common complaint among fans has been the offensive line’s inability to get downhill when it matters, and somewhat connected to that, the ability of the defensive line to stop opponents from running the ball effectively. Bama got both Saturday night against a Missouri team that is strong up front on both sides of the ball. Defensively, Alabama held the Tigers to 70 yards on 35 carries – although, to be fair, Tiger running backs got 103 yards; QB Drew Lock lost 33 yards to sacks. Still, it was imperative the Crimson Tide shut down the Tigers’ primary back, Larry Rountree, and it did – Rountree had just 48 yards on 17 carries, a 2.8-yard average. Offensively, Alabama committed to establishing the run, and it did. Bama’s top three backs combined for 36 carries and 171 yards, a 4.8-yard average. There has been a question all year whether Alabama could get physical in the running game if it needed to; the answer appears to be yes.
2. Hurts’ development as a passer didn’t go unnoticed. Jalen Hurts hit two deep passes in this game, was 7-of-8 overall for 115 yards, and displayed some versatility lining up as both a running back and slot receiver. Focusing on what he was able to do under center as Tagovailoa’s replacement, Hurts looked comfortable in the pocket, didn’t stare down his primary receivers and only once missed seeing an obviously open man, which is improvement in spades over where he was in the spring. It’s time to consider the effect QB coach Dan Enos has had on Hurts’ development, and also to talk about what Brian Daboll did (or didn’t) do for him last year. Daboll’s work as offensive coordinator was excellent, but the criticism surrounding his hiring was that he wasn’t really a quarterback coach. With Daboll’s departure – and especially with the flexibility to hire an additional assistant coach that came about just this season – Alabama’s addition of Enos has paid dividends and then some. Hurts has appeared more confident in recent weeks, sort of like a light bulb has gone off upstairs. Alabama will need to manage Tagovailoa’s snaps against Tennessee next week, and seeing Hurts have this kind of success against Missouri has to make the coaches feel at least somewhat relieved.
3. Injuries at receiver gave Kief a chance to step up, and he did. Alabama, at one point, had lost two-thirds of its peerless sophomore receiver trio after Henry Ruggs III went down with a twisted ankle (on a play many saw as an intentional attempt by a Tiger defender to injure him) and DeVonta Smith left the game with a pulled hamstring. Freshman Tyrell Shavers was the first to be tried in the main rotation, but he appeared to slip coming out of his break on his first targeted situation and the pass fell incomplete. The next man up was fifth-year senior Derek Kief, who caught two passes – a middle screen that was sniffed out well by the Missouri defense, and then a catch down the home sideline for a first down. At this point, it looks like Ruggs will be back for Tennessee but Smith will be limited at best. Jaylen Waddle becomes the third starter in the event either Ruggs or Smith is out, but if in-game competition means anything, Kief should be the first player off the bench for Alabama until Smith returns. Watching production come from unexpected sources never gets old. Here’s hoping Kief continues to make the best of his chances during his final collegiate season.
4. Linebackers answered the call, and helped keep Lock off-balance. If Drew Lock is the best quarterback Alabama will face down the stretch, the Crimson Tide has to feel good about its chances. Lock was sacked for a safety on a play he should have anticipated, was sacked three other times, threw a pair of interceptions and overall completed just half his pass attempts for 142 total yards. In short, Alabama’s defense – even rebuilt as it was with Saivion Smith at corner and Jared Mayden at dime safety – made Lock look very average, or worse. Many pundits were promoting this game as a face-off between Lock and Tagovailoa, but only one side of that battle really showed up. What caused this? It wasn’t completely the play of Alabama’s linebackers, but they played a huge role. Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller probably had their best cumulative game of 2018, while MLB Mack Wilson wasn’t flawless, but he did improve upon his last couple of games and ended up leading the team in tackles. Miller had 3 QB hurries and 1.5 tackles for loss. Count this one as progress made.
5. It may be time for a different approach at punter. Watching Skyler DeLong has gotten painful and no one is benefiting from him running out there at this point. DeLong’s drop has so many issues, Nick Saban actually addressed the situation publicly in recent media comments. In addition, he appears to have develop a hitch in his walk-up that comes and goes. It’s become some kind of punter-only version of Steve Blass Disease, and unfortunately for DeLong, Alabama isn’t punting frequently enough for him to work it out on the fly. Walk-on Mike Bernier, a fifth-year senior who once punted for FCS Eastern Illinois, is available, and we couldn’t help but notice Bernier was the second-team holder for placekickers in warm-ups, a sign that he might be getting prepped to contribute. Bernier doesn’t have DeLong’s leg strength, but mechanically right now he’s a Toyota Camry to DeLong’s Alfa Romeo Spyder. DeLong punted once for 12 yards in this game; that’s not going to cut it down the stretch.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN