USM wrapup: Tide’s offense asks defenses to pick their poison

 

At one point during his postgame comments, Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson mentioned the difficulty of facing an Alabama team that had “two Heisman Trophy candidates.”

The biggest question coming out of Saturday is which two players he was talking about.

Obviously, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is one. But was the other one wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, or wide receiver Jerry Jeudy? Was it possibly running back Najee Harris, who over the last two weeks has come to look like one of those Swiss Army knife-type players no one wants to face?

And if you asked the Southern Miss offense, particularly in the last couple of minutes of the game, they might tell you defensive lineman Christian Barmore was competing, if not for the Heisman, at least the Outland.

Alabama played probably its most complete game of the season, particularly on defense. With the exception of Southern Miss’ lone touchdown drive before the half, where the defense appeared to lose focus for a few minutes, Alabama both ran and passed with no problems and on defense, stopped Southern Miss from doing either one. The Golden Eagles were held to 226 total yards, and not surprisingly, bordered on the inept when it came to the running game (52 yards, 1.6 yards per carry). Alabama even held special teams demon Jaylond Adams in check in the return game.

What Alabama couldn’t do, though, was avoid more injuries. Nosetackle D.J. Dale left the game with a knee injury and, even if he makes it back for Ole Miss next week, won’t be 100 percent. The much bigger concern coming out of this game, though, was about PK Will Reichard, who injured a hip flexor and might miss significant time.

This wasn’t your father’s Southern Miss, but it wasn’t your father’s Alabama, either. The Crimson Tide has abandoned the dull-but-effective smashmouth running attack for something that looks like it was invented by the folks at Electronic Arts. Southern Miss, meanwhile, was trying to run an air-raid against a defense with significantly more speed than its own offense. It was a bad fit.

Next week marks the start of the SEC season in earnest for Alabama. The first game up will be one of the most easily winnable, as Ole Miss is folding quickly. But Alabama doesn’t need a lot of help winning games right now. The Crimson Tide coaches would likely settle for something to exterminate the injury bug.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Southern Miss:

1. OC Steve Sarkisian had his best day at the head of the Tide offense. This goes back to his aborted tenure following up Lane Kiffin in the role. Sarkisian kept Southern Miss off-balance all day with the plays he chose to mix run and pass tendencies. Henry Ruggs’ first touchdown came off a pure setup sequence in which Sarkisian brought in the Ace package to force the defense to pull the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, then he burned them over the top to Ruggs on a slant. Alabama mostly toyed with Southern Miss throughout, only punting twice. The Golden Eagles never got comfortable defensively and frequently guessed wrong. Granted, it did help that Alabama’s offensive line had such a size advantage over the USM defensive line, but the scheme and playcalling sequences mattered more. Nevertheless, give the offensive line its due for playing its best game of the year with only a couple of whiffs at the end of the first half.

2. Harris bounces back nicely; McKinney is the vacuum cleaner of the defense. A week after getting benched in favor of Brandon Ale Kaho, Christian Harris reclaimed his weakside linebacker position with a vengeance. Southern Miss doesn’t have the complete team South Carolina has, but it gives up nothing to the Gamecocks in terms of speed from the skill positions, and Harris did a good job reading his keys and getting into the proper position. As for McKinney, most thought he would step up his game in 2019 and so far those pundits haven’t been disappointed. McKinney cleans up everything and has the best tackling mechanics on the team. Alabama as a whole still needs to tackle better on defense but McKinney is not part of that problem. With both these players having a strong game, the middle of Bama’s defense closed the garrote tightly around USM’s neck.

3. Get Christian Barmore more playing time. Barmore made tackles on the last three plays of the game and blew up USM’s offensive line every snap he was in. It’s curious why he hasn’t played more this year – perhaps the coaches feel like he needs to pace himself better, or play more under control – but when he’s in the game it’s like inserting Warner Bros.’s Tasmanian Devil into the mix. With D.J. Dale injuring a knee in this game, Alabama will have to get more production from some lesser-known players. Barmore seems to have done everything he can – in a game, at least – to win the chance to produce.

4. Randolph at tight end made a difference; Musika and Wynn must step up at NT. Buried down the depth chart at guard, Kendall Randolph traded his No. 60 jersey for No. 85 and has already become Alabama’s second option at the inline Y-tight end position. The difference between him and Miller Forristall was clear from the outset. Randolph – 6’4”, 296 pounds versus Forristall at 6’5”, 242 – is a mismatch for smaller defensive ends when he locks up at the point of attack. It’s unclear as of yet whether he is an option as a receiver, but Randolph looks more athletic than his measurables would suggest. Having a short-yardage blocking option is the one notable thing this offense has lacked. As for Tevita Musika and Stephon Wynn Jr., the loss of D.J. Dale at nosetackle – which could carry over into this week – suddenly makes the backup job one of keen interest. Musika – whose short, wide build and aggressive demeanor makes him the football equivalent of Ram-Man from the “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” cartoon series – played ahead of Wynn this week for the first time in 2019. He also played aggressively, and his ability to create leverage at the point of attack is a welcome sight. If Dale can’t go against Ole Miss, it’s unclear whether Alabama would elevate either player to starter, or if the coaches would start Phidarian Mathis instead.

5. Losing Reichard hurts; expect Bulovas to kick against the Rebels. A hip flexor injury, for a kicker, is nothing to sneeze at. Will Reichard will likely miss the Ole Miss game this Saturday while Joseph Bulovas, Alabama’s kicker in 2018, gets another shot at the job. Reichard’s results, at least on field goal attempts, haven’t been anything special, but he noticeably gets the ball up higher than does Bulovas, and he’s better at kickoffs. What will be interesting to see is who Alabama will have as a backup. Unless punters Skyler DeLong – who himself is struggling, and also trying to hold off a 2018 starter at the same time – or Mike Bernier can kick field goals, there’s no safety net in the event Bulovas were to also get hurt. Alabama lists two walk-on kickers on the roster, sophomore Tripp Slyman and freshman Ty Perine, and a walk-on punter, freshman Jack Martin. None of the three dressed out for Southern Miss despite there being no restrictions on the number of players that could be in uniform. That would seem to suggest the next step beyond Bulovas is a lot of two-point conversion attempts and fourth-down offensive plays – along with prayers for Reichard’s fast mending.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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