If you came into this game looking for Alabama to stomp Duke’s lights out from the first snap, then Saturday’s 42-3 win over the Blue Devils didn’t follow the script you were expecting.
Instead, Alabama played rope-a-dope with David Cutcliffe’s offensive ingenuity until Cutcliffe had exhausted all the back pages and supplementary appendices in his playbook. Once Bama had seen it all, it shut the door on everything at once and just let nature take its course.
How David Cutcliffe never got serious job offers above the level of Ole Miss and Duke is unclear. Maybe it’s because he looks like a civil engineer from a rural county in the Delta. Or, he doesn’t ever sound like he’s competing with Army drill sergeants for attention. Whatever it is, Alabama fans should rejoice, because the Crimson Tide never had the best of luck against Cutcliffe and leaving him walled up in the confines of a small-footprint brainiac school in the Carolinas is probably the second-best place for him, with the only better option being Alabama’s own quarterbacks coach and/or offensive coordinator.
So when Duke broke out the triple-option in the first half of this game, the look on the faces of Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Pete Golding weren’t looks of panic, or even concern, but more the kind of looks you’d find on the faces of NASCAR crew chiefs and fans when their drivers were being chased down late in a race by Dale Earnhardt Sr.: “Well, here he comes again with that (stuff).”
Meanwhile, Alabama’s own first-half offense looked like a “big one” at a NASCAR superspeedway. There was a turnover. There was an offensive line that looked completely discombobulated at times. Star QB Tua Tagovailoa frequently had pressure in his face right from the snap, leading to Tagovailoa tap-dancing around the backfield like Billy Flynn in “Chicago.” Interviewed going into halftime, Nick Saban’s almost-sanguine performance in front of the cameras while answering reporters’ questions fooled exactly no one; the eruption was forthcoming inside the Bama locker room.
After halftime, it was a different Alabama and a different story. Given his first chance to make halftime adjustments in his new role as offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian appeared to handle the task well. Alabama exploded in the third quarter and put the game away, so when the next explosion came – Nick Saban’s verbal flamethrower directed at head linesman Mark Bennett after a ticky-tack call for sideline interference – there really wasn’t anything left to fight about.
Alabama has faced so much turnover from the end of the 2018 season, which ended in a fashion that almost required a flushing-out of the pipes, that this opener could have gone any one of four or five different ways. All roads were going to lead to a Bama victory; the talent differential was just too much for Duke to overcome. But Alabama could have just as easily slogged to a 28-16 win as it did putting Duke on ice to start the third quarter and shutting down the proceedings.
To do so, Alabama leaned heavily on its quarterback and a wide receiver group that is every bit as good as their press clippings suggest. Jerry Jeudy’s third-quarter touchdown – which began with a 360-degree spin move, included a stiff arm and finished with a drive through a defender – is something that translates across Alabama’s 2019 schedule. It won’t be just Duke that can’t stop him, or Tagovailoa, or anyone else on the roster whose name is preceded by the letters “WR.” Alabama’s new tight end group also got into the act, and with an offense designed to be more traditional (as much as an offense with this many air-based weapons could be considered “traditional”), having multiple tight ends that can be used in a full spate of vertical routes is not something any Tide opponent wants to hear about.
Duke simply didn’t have the speed to keep up with this number of weapons. It also didn’t have the offensive speed necessary to counter Alabama’s defensive speed on the edges. That left Duke to have to both defend a field that was, in a virtual sense, wider and longer than normal – and, at the same time, run an offense that had to contain itself to the middle of the field, with the occasional shot downfield against one-on-one coverage. And that just wasn’t a recipe for winning football.
Alabama has a lot to do going forward (which we’ll touch on below). But it rebounded from a mediocre first-half performance Saturday to assert itself in the second half. If Alabama can maintain that kind of momentum, it will be able to realize its goal of getting back to the College Football Playoff at year’s end.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Duke:
1. Credit to DC Pete Golding for a fine job getting two true freshman LBs ready to play. Golding took a lot of criticism for the team’s 2018 performance, as he held the co-defensive coordinator title with the since-departed Tosh Lupoi. Nick Saban never wavered in the wake of Lupoi’s departure, however, quickly handing the reins to Golding and letting him run the entire defense despite his young age and relative inexperience. If this game was any indication of what’s to come, it was a good decision. Golding and Saban adroitly pivoted to Cutcliffe’s use of the triple-option early in the game, and dialed up schemes to get more consistent pressure against an offensive line that is no worse than mid-pack of what Bama will face in 2019, and could be top-half. But even if one were to make the argument that Duke is Duke and raw talent was enough to overcome whatever Duke threw at Alabama, Golding – who also serves as Alabama’s inside linebackers coach – needs to get credit for getting two true freshmen ready to play in the middle. Both Shane Lee and Christian Harris had solid debuts, never got out of position and were never flustered. Granted, they are exceptionally talented players, but they also both proved to be mentally prepared for the experience. Credit Golding with most of that.
2. Offensive line had a bad game and must get better. There wasn’t a lot to like here, aside from the aggressiveness G Landon Dickerson showed. By game’s end, Dickerson was firmly in the heads of Duke defenders, which is in line with reports of his time at Florida State. But for the most part, the only thing to write home about concerning this offensive line was a paean noting the need for improvement. Run-blocking bordered on the atrocious. Alabama barely had 100 yards on the ground before Jerome Ford broke off a 37-yard touchdown run during trash time. More importantly, Alabama never established the run. Pass protection was adequate at best, too. Tagovailoa was sacked only once, but both he and Mac Jones were harassed well before the magic 2.5-second “STAT” (snap-to-affect time) threshold. Only Tagovailoa’s footwork and vision kept things from getting even uglier. It wouldn’t be so bad had Alabama done something right up front, but it didn’t. A late injury to LG Emil Ekiyor didn’t help things, but at least the injury wasn’t believed to be serious.
3. Sarkisian’s finish was better than his start. While the offensive line was making things harder for Sarkisian and the offensive playcalling staff to do their jobs in the first half, the playcalling flow and general coordination of the offense could have been better, especially early on. There were enough veterans on the field that mental errors shouldn’t have been as numerous as they were, but Sarkisian did have the good sense to finally go away from the run when it became clear RB Jerome Ford couldn’t make chicken salad out of chicken refuse between the tackles. Ford’s fumble was on Ford, but a failure to block inside – in addition to a failure to make the proper line calls in the face of pressure – was a combination of bad effort by the offensive line and the offensive staff being slow to adjust. Sarkisian, however, put his time at the half to good use, and every Alabama second-half drive ended in either a score or a field goal opportunity. We’ll watch carefully how this staff progresses throughout the season, but today’s efforts need more than a little bit of fine-tuning.
4. Special teams difficulties? We would never have expected such. Let’s get the praise out of the way quickly: Will Reichard’s kickoffs are already weaponized. And Reichard’s placement kicks get up quickly, with good distance. In time, he will be an excellent college placekicker. But right now, it just feels like more of the same from a Bama perspective. Two field goal attempts, two deflections off an upright. Punting wasn’t much better, as Bama’s first punt was short. The return teams didn’t get much of a chance to demonstrate their abilities, as returning punts in a dome is difficult due to punts tending to hang up in a no-wind environment. Alabama fans are Missouri on special teams right now – and we don’t mean Missouri the school. We mean Missouri in a “show me” sense. Bama will have to definitively show it is better in the kicking game before anyone is going to believe it.
5. Bama has good depth overall, but not in certain spots. Based on a one-game sample size, Alabama has workable depth at receiver, offensive line, defensive line and the secondary. But there are some areas that are dangerously thin. When Markail Benton and Jalen Moody replaced Shane Lee and Christian Harris at linebacker, the middle of the Bama defense got a lot more penetrable. The suspensions of Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. showed that while Jerome Ford has value as an outside runner and receiver, he doesn’t have the skills yet to also be the kind of inside runner that changeup back Josh Jacobs was. No team can wave a magic wand and put a stop to injuries, but Alabama is going to have to be extra-careful in managing workload at both ILB and RB. Free safety Xavier McKinney also clearly established himself as better than any reserve at his position, and of course, there’s always Tua at quarterback. Given that competing for a national championship is always a realistic goal at Alabama, Bama needs to manage for the long view, and that hasn’t always been the case in recent years. It will be interesting to see how much protection Saban and staff afford their most precious assets going forward.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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