NMSU wrapup: Bama at its best when offense is wide open

 

When you read the headline from this article, it makes it seem like Alabama’s offense has all the gears synchronized and everything is clicking along, but that would be deceiving.

In a year in which Nick Saban brought back Steve Sarkisian to run the offense, brought in Kyle Flood to bring some nastiness back to the offensive line and took a transfer from former Florida State offensive lineman Landon Dickerson, whose reputation as an enforcer preceded him, it was thought – and hoped – that Alabama would get back to beating opponents by submission again, not by pure technical skill.

But against New Mexico State, the running game was heavily bolstered, statistically, by a snafu on the first play of the game, when a 75-yard touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs III was eventually classified as a running play because Ruggs was about a foot behind Tua Tagovailoa when the ball was caught. In reality, Alabama’s running game has been stagnant now against two subpar opponents, Duke and New Mexico State, its stats augmented by either anomalies like the Ruggs catch, or by Jonathan Ford’s late scamper against the Blue Devils long after the game had been decided.

Still, Alabama won this game Saturday by a 62-10 score. Those results were possible because Alabama’s passing game is elite, and the more wide-open it’s allowed to be, the more dangerous it is. It’s hard to find fault in a score like that, and Alabama could have probably threatened 100 points had it kept the pedal engaged throughout the fourth quarter. Also, in regards to potential complaints about how the offense looked as a whole, Nick Saban’s Alabama teams have become somewhat famous for laying a statistical egg in second and third games of the year ever since his arrival in 2007.

But if you’re looking at games like this through a lens limited to two items – injury prohibition, and applicable trends for later games – then today’s game was a mixed bag.

Alabama pretty much accomplished the first goal outright. Trevon Diggs had a scary moment late in the game that was probably related to cramps (further info was not available at press time) but otherwise, the Crimson Tide came through cleanly. It was that second goal, which we’ll get into in-depth in the Five-Point Breakdown below, where Alabama didn’t hit all its spots.

One thing that shouldn’t be a point of contention, however, is why Alabama chose to play this game in the first place. Many in the media continue to ask the Alabamas of the world to load schedules with five-star games every week. They call for it in the name of excitement, or fairness, but do not call for the same from other programs of lesser stature. After awhile, it becomes crystal clear that those critics simply can’t handle Alabama being successful for so many years in a row, and want Alabama to be knocked out of the postseason picture by any means possible. Alabama, meanwhile, has no more responsibility to such an idea than does any other program, to say nothing of its commitment to its own reserve players to schedule games whereby they can get on the field and participate. Yet, the criticism continues to come – and all it does is serve to damage the credibility of the ones leveling it.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-New Mexico State:

1. Run-blocking has been erratic, and must be fixed before SEC schedule starts. In this game, like against Duke, Alabama had several missed assignments, particularly in blitz pickup or with combo blocks. While it’s unfair to call out one person, Evan Neal has had several bad moments in two weeks (explaining why Emil Ekiyor was briefly tried in his place against Duke) and struggled today as well. But he wasn’t alone. New Mexico State should never have challenged Alabama’s inside running game to the extent that it did. There were problems at left tackle, but especially issues with tight ends blocking in the running game. The loss of Kedrick James in the preseason was always going to be problematic, as Alabama lacks a true in-line blocking stalwart at the tight end position, but we didn’t think the dropoff would be as pronounced as it has been. Unfortunately, this isn’t the NFL; neither does the Transfer Portal work in-season. Alabama is going to have to make do with the tight end group that it has. The Crimson Tide also continues to get more pressure on Tua Tagovailoa from his blind side, the right side in this case, than it should. Here’s hoping some combination of steady improvement and the return of G Deonte Brown after Week 4 will help.

2. Explosiveness missing from Alabama’s A-group at running back. It appears Alabama wants to use Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. as its A-group this year, without really having Jonathan Ford, Keilan Robinson or Chadarius Townsend mixed in as a change of pace. If that’s going to continue, both Harris and Robinson are going to have to improve both at finding holes and accelerating through them. Robinson had a couple of nice runs in this game, including a nifty cutback, but has missed more than he’s hit over the last two weeks. Harris’ toughness and balance have been good, but he has looked a step slow in 2019. Ford’s debut against Duke was uneven; Robinson’s explosive run today against a tired NMSU defense late in the game was nice to see, but can it translate against the LSUs and Georgias of the SEC?

3. Tua was sharp, but everyone still holds their breath when there’s contact. Alabama’s entire passing game seems to have picked up where it left off in 2018, and the guy at the head of that train is Tua Tagovailoa. It’s a slightly different set of routes and packages compared to the RPO-heavy offense of Mike Locksley last year, yet Tua has made a smooth transition. Today wasn’t his best statistical day, but it was a day without any misreads or errors. Refer back to point No. 1 on this list, though, for why Alabama fans all take a collective held breath anytime the ball is still in Tua’s hands for more than 3 seconds after the snap.

4. Wide receiver unit is dominant, and should win all unit matchups in 2019. We haven’t seen a secondary yet that can shut this group down, especially with Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III playing at the level they’re playing at right now. Add in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, and it’s really unfair to defenses. But the Jeudy-and-Ruggs combination today was all Alabama needed. Neither Duke nor New Mexico State had any answer for the kind of output Alabama is capable of. And coupled with QB Tua Tagovailoa, this is one facet of Alabama’s offense that figures to translate well no matter the opposition. Enjoy watching this while you can, folks, because you might not ever see it again in your lifetime.

5. Kudos to K Will Reichard on a statement game. All but one of Reichard’s kickoffs went for touchbacks, either into or completely out of the end zone, and he hit two long field goals with room to spare. Coming out of a difficult debut against Duke where the best thing that could be said was regarding how quickly Reichard got the ball up (and the distance the ball would travel while staying up), this game produced more measurable results. It would be nice for a change for Alabama to have a complete kicker who was a threat to hit from all reasonable distances. We’re not ready to declare it a done deal yet, but one or two more performances like this and the Duke misses will be chalked up either as unfortunate accidents, or simply career-opening jitters.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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