Somewhere between probably the fourth and fifth time DeVonta Smith ended up in the end zone after catching a touchdown pass from Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama fans had to be thinking it was about time for Ole Miss to fold up the tents, run three plays into the line every possession, and trade punts with Alabama as Crimson Tide backup QB Mac Jones got practice doing the same thing.
Instead, Ole Miss outscored Alabama 21-14 from the middle of the third quarter on, blowing open the stat sheet in the process. How worried you are about an outcome like this probably would foretell what you think of Alabama’s chances at another national championship next January.
In a game that was mostly good news for Alabama – particularly for its beleaguered offensive line and a running back group that hadn’t quite lived up to expectations yet – the Tide couldn’t escape hand-wringing over a poor defensive performance. As usual, the worry wasn’t about today … it was about games down the road against more powerful rivals like LSU, Auburn and potentially Georgia.
Fans starry-eyed over Tua Tagovailoa’s and DeVonta Smith’s record-setting performances tended to pooh-pooh the defensive struggles after the game, but Nick Saban didn’t. Noting a “lack of control” over the game in his postgame comments, Saban also recalled the struggles earlier this year at South Carolina. The Crimson Tide in this game yielded 279 yards of rushing and another 197 through the air, but it was the way Ole Miss lopped off chunks of yardage on the ground – with ease, and with a true freshman quarterback starting, one who wasn’t even an early entrant to spring practice – was troubling. If Alabama believes it will see a team like Ohio State, or the Jalen Hurts-led Oklahoma Sooners in the College Football Playoff, such struggles stopping the run have to be corrected.
Offensively, there were few nits to pick, and none of them particularly serious. Alabama ran up 418 yards through the air and another 155 on the ground. More importantly in regards to those rushing numbers, though, was how Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. looked doing it. This was the first time in 2019 that Alabama seemed to control its own destiny on the ground, and the running backs fought for extra yardage on every carry. Having that kind of success is simply unfair for a quarterback like Tagovailoa, and he took fill advantage.
The question, of course, is what of the future? It’s hard to watch a team put up 59 points, scoring almost at will, and wring hands afterward. But this is quickly proving to be much less than a vintage Alabama defense. Alabama’s linebackers were weaknesses in this game far more than they were strengths. Injuries have hurt the defensive line greatly, and Alabama still doesn’t have the rotation it wants in place yet. Alabama’s next game is on the road at Texas A&M, against a dual-threat quarterback who seems to play some of his best ball when facing Alabama. While the Aggies aren’t nearly as strong as many prognosticators thought they’d be in 2019, that game will still go a long way toward predicting Alabama’s finish to the 2019 season.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ole Miss:
1. Linebackers played poorly overall, especially up the middle, and DL came second against an OL with issues. Shane Lee played … just OK. But that was parsecs beyond Christian Harris’ effort. Harris was flat-out lost for much of the day, and once Brandon Ale Kaho took over late in the game it became evident just how much of a non-factor he was. Harris was credited with 7 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, but he simply didn’t know where to be in coverage and a more experienced quarterback than John Rhys Plumlee would have made him pay for it. It’s worth wondering whether Kaho might end up being the “spread” weakside linebacker and Harris the “conventional” one as the season progresses, but it’s also worth noting that Alabama used Kaho against South Carolina in similar fashion earlier in the year but didn’t get the desired results.
Outside linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis had better days, although Lewis’ snaps were limited and he didn’t make the kind of impact he probably wanted to make. As for the defensive line, Christian Barmore – who was the darling of the media this past week after his performance against Southern Miss last week – didn’t play. Braylen Ingraham got his first action, but the most notable development may have been Tevita Musika entrenching himself as the backup nosetackle.
No defensive lineman, save maybe Raekwon Davis, really stood out, a problem given the relative mediocrity of Ole Miss’ offensive line. Alabama has to get stronger up the middle, because safety Xavier McKinney soaked up the stats behind them, in many cases because guys in front of him weren’t completing assignments.
2. Execution errors are plaguing the front seven and it’s not clear why. The topic of front-seven struggles are so vital an issue, we’re devoting two of our five breakdown points to them. Alabama lost edge contain on probably 10 different occasions, if not more, in this game. Ole Miss’ ability to work the backside of the play is a testament to the veteran experience of offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, but Alabama’s talent level is such that the Crimson Tide never should have been in that position in the first place. Cornerbacks didn’t always do their job in run defense, either, which just magnified the problem. The fake-interest-in-a-pass-then-bust-it-backside worked far too often for it to just be coincidence. Auburn is watching this tape and drooling.
3. Alabama’s OL plays its best game, and new YTE Kendall Randolph was a big part of it. Although Deonte Brown returned in this game, it really wasn’t him that made the biggest difference. From the outset, Alabama was getting better looks running over LG Evan Neal than it had all year. And when converted offensive guard Kendall Randolph, now a tight end, was in the game as an extra blocker, Alabama was opening holes unlike anything it has done previously in 2019. If Alabama happens to find out Randolph can also catch the ball, even just once or twice all year, it will make an already effective package just that much more deadly. Alabama fairly well ran at will in this game, so while the defense is still dragging things down, the offense is now beginning to function as a cohesive unit. Again, much hinges on Randolph going forward.
4. What is there to say about Tua (and DeVonta Smith) that hasn’t already been said? Tua is the best quarterback in college football, best player overall, and a handful of other “bests” connected to his off-field persona and deeds. Today’s performance was of a vintage most will never have the opportunity to sample again. Tua’s most high-profile mistakes – the overthrows of Henry Ruggs III – were due to Ruggs suffering a hip pointer and losing his top gear. If Tagovailoa plays the rest of the season in the way he played against Ole Miss, Alabama will be tough to beat regardless of its defense. And once Ruggs is back to full song – which he’s expected to be in two weeks against Texas A&M – then Alabama’s receiver corps is too strong for most any college secondary.
5. Special teams were better than they probably looked. Skyler DeLong had two poor punts and substitute placekicker Joseph Bulovas doinked a field goal attempt off an upright, but special teams is about more than just the kicking. Between kick and punt returns and the coverage of same, a team’s entire special teams unit is judged on more than just what comes off the kickers’ toes. In that regard, Alabama’s biggest mistake of the day was Jaylen Waddle’s muffed punt that ultimately led to an Ole Miss touchdown. Outside of that, Alabama dominated in the return game, holding Ole Miss to a single 15-yard kickoff return despite kicking off too many times to count.
Alabama covered all of Ole Miss’ semi-onside, pop-up kick attempts, and then there was the blocked punt, thanks to Brandon Ale Kaho progressively learning Ole Miss’ rugby punt routine well enough to finally put a stop to one of them. Bulovas, meanwhile, made all his PATs, made one field goal of a longer distance than the one he missed, and was solid on kickoffs. But doinking a field goal from the middle of the field 28 yards out is something that should never happen at this level. DeLong is another matter.
It was about this time last year Alabama started to look Mike Bernier’s way, and Bernier is still on the Alabama roster. So, too, is walk-on Ty Perine, who put on a show in warmups Saturday both before the game and at halftime. DeLong, of course, is on scholarship, and sometimes that results in getting the benefit of many doubts. But Alabama should have seen enough by now to know that a change probably needs to be made again.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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