If you want to know how much college football in general, and Alabama football in particular, has changed since the days of Gene Stallings, we’re about to talk about a game in which the Crimson Tide gave up 28 points and yet the defense should feel pretty good about itself.
For Stallings, who thought scoreboards should be set up to go no higher than 19, a 47-28 win would have ignited more poor-mouthing than at an auction of 20-year-old police cars. For Nick Saban, those 28 points were largely irrelevant. Alabama took control of this game the moment it took its first lead, and spent the rest of the game herding Texas A&M toward the finish line like cows heading to a slaughter pen.
Alabama gave up 125 yards rushing on the day, but 90 of those went to Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond, many of them during trash time, and none of them were particularly painful. Outside of the Aggies’ fine opening drive, Isaiah Spiller (27 yards, 2.7 avg. per rush) and Jacob Kibodi (8 yards, 4.0 avg.) were non-factors. Reduced to a passing-only offense but possessing a quarterback whose strong suit is not accuracy, Texas A&M had no hope of keeping pace with an Alabama offense led by Tua Tagovailoa.
For that matter, any discussion of Alabama’s defense basically comes down to two topics: the first drive, and everything thereafter. For whatever reason, the Aggies had Alabama’s number on the opening drive (a 4th-down play that never happened still managed to injure three Alabama defenders temporarily, which probably had a lot to do with it). For many reasons, Alabama was able to keep Texas A&M mostly locked up from that point forward.
Offensively, Alabama was a different team. A new starting lineup of Landon Dickerson at center and Deonte Brown at right guard paid instant dividends, as Alabama was able to run the ball with authority. Whereas just 35 of Texas A&M’s rushing yards came from its running backs, Alabama’s running backs produced 165 yards on the ground, averaged 5.5 yards per carry cumulatively, and kept Texas A&M from crashing the line with impunity. This was the first game against good competition that Alabama showed not just real balance, but also game-changing ability on the ground as well as in the air.
And this is important, because just after Alabama finished taking Texas A&M apart, fans and coaches alike got to witness LSU hang 42 points on a Florida team that has a better defense than do the Aggies. It’s important that Alabama continue to improve heading into that game, and suddenly a Tennessee team coming off a win it had to have looks like a slightly different opponent than the Tennessee team that stunk up the beginning of the season. Taking care of business early in that game, and the Arkansas game that follows it, would get Alabama into the position it needs to be in with LSU, Auburn, and a presumptive appearance in the SEC Championship Game waiting.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Texas A&M:
1. Offensive line played its best game, and this is its best lineup. Landon Dickerson had taken some heat coming out of the Duke opener for poor snaps when playing center. He’s apparently been working overtime on that deficiency, because he was flawless against Texas A&M. Dickerson also appeared to make better line calls and get Alabama out of bad spots better than Chris Owens was doing it.
The other plus with Dickerson going to center is that Deonte Brown got a start, and aside from one blown block in the red zone, he absolutely had his way with whatever defensive lineman Texas A&M put across from him. Brown was a mauler in the running game, which was expected. What wasn’t expected, at least not to the degree Brown delivered on it, was his ability to hold serve in pass protection.
Tua Tagovailoa was sacked just once, and that on an overload, sellout situation where A&M was either going to get a quick sack or give up a touchdown somewhere, and Brown had nothing to do with that play either way. Evan Neal also had a nice game and appeared to work better next to Dickerson; Jedrick Wills continued quietly having a solid season at right tackle. Alabama’s offensive line has steadily improved all year and this was its masterwork.
2. Alabama hit on something with its pass-rush “triangle.” In addition to having OLBs Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings crashing in from the corners, Alabama made a change in the nosetackle rotation this week. Rather than simply rotate D.J. Dale and Phidarian Mathis depending on when Dale needed a breather, fan favorite and general madman Christian Barmore was put into the game to play nose in dime and A-gap tackle in nickel.
The results were immediate. Barmore only showed up officially in two spots on the stat sheet: He recorded a sack, and he broke up a pass. But his impact was much greater than that. He consistently moved the pocket backwards, even when working against two blockers (and a couple of times, three blockers). His effort created a downstream effect where DE Raekwon Davis and the aforementioned linebackers were able to disrupt Texas A&M to a greater degree.
If this plan looks familiar, it’s basically how Bama handled Marcell Dareus early on in his Alabama career. On the flip side, Barmore was flagged for another hit to a QBs head while trying to deflect a pass – a call that was just as bad the second time around as it was the first. However, it led to a Texas A&M field goal, so Barmore now has two flags for a total of 10 lost points – not good. We expect him to improve going forward, though, and his ability to provide a pressure point in the middle of the offensive line to go with the pressure coming off both edges gives Alabama a pressure “triangle,” if you will, that teams with even good offensive lines will struggle to contain as the year goes on.
3. Opening drive highlighted problems with LB depth. If Jimbo Fisher could bottle whatever it was he had on the opening drive and sell it, he could retire a billionaire. That being said, it would be interested to know what would have happened had D.J. Dale, Raekwon Davis and Christian Harris not been nicked up on the same play. The “play” didn’t actually happen – replay buzzed in to review the previous play just before the ball was snapped – but the players didn’t know it and went through with things anyway.
The result was Alabama had to use Markail Benton at linebacker the remainder of the drive, and he looked as lost as an Easter egg in August. Benton continued to come in at times the rest of the day, playing the “spread LB” role Brandon Ale Kaho had been manning the last couple of weeks, but when Harris wasn’t out there, Alabama’s effectiveness seemed to go down. For that matter, Bama’s best defensive look Saturday appeared to be one in which safety Xavier McKinney basically played a half-safety, half-weakside linebacker spot much the same way Nick Saban used to utilize Ali Sharrief long ago.
What this says above all is that Alabama will probably be in dire trouble if either Harris or Shane Lee goes down for any length of time the rest of the way.
4. Red zone offense needs work. Alabama came into the game ranked 31st in red zone offense, which is not terrible, but Alabama’s early schedule also hasn’t exactly been filled with defensive juggernauts. Texas A&M showed how to pressure Alabama into bad decisions. Tagovailoa’s first 2019 interception was one, but it could have happened again on the play most are now focusing on as “Tua vs. Jeudy.” On that play, it appeared Jeudy was dealing with man coverage, and Tua wanted him to continue coming across the pattern. What Tagovailoa didn’t seem to see, though, was S Keldrick Carper sitting down on the right hash. Had Jeudy continued across, Carper would have had no worse than a 50-50 shot at a pick – the defensive alignment was very similar to the play later on when Tagovailoa was picked off.
Alabama has been less than sharp in several red zone situations this year, hamstringing scoring opportunities either through turnover or penalty. There has also been either the inability to run the ball, or the disinterest in it, in close-to-the-goal situations. Texas A&M may not have been able to stop Alabama on Saturday, but the Aggies get credit with having a sound red zone defensive package in place, and it’s one Alabama will certainly see copied later in the year.
5. Bama flipped the script on the special teams comparison, thanks to non-kicking components. Every week, it’s tough to profile the two teams’ special teams units, because there is a “kicking special teams” and then there’s everything else.
In regards to kicking, Alabama has been a hair short of terrible in 2018. Starter Will Reichard is injured, and his numbers (except regarding kickoff distance, at least) were mediocre before the injury. His replacement, 2018 starter Joseph Bulovas, has been going down the road with all the mechanical polish of a barn-find 1970s MGB. Bulovas banked in not one, but two kicks Saturday – a field goal and an extra point – and most of his kickoffs were short. But Texas A&M bailed him out of the latter, because the Aggies, who have been deplorable in just about all facets of the kick-return game in 2019, elected to fair-catch all but one of his returnable kicks.
The difference in this category, then, became the non-kicking elements of the job, and Alabama smoked Texas A&M in all of them. Aggie punter Braden Mann ought to get a few votes for SEC Defensive Player of the Week after being forced to stop Alabama return men Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs III 40 yards upfield on multiple occasions. Say what you will about Alabama special teams coach Jeff Banks, who has taken heat for the team’s kicking woes, but every other facet of Tide special teams has been spot-on.
Speaking of kicking, Reichard will soon take his placekicking job back, but Alabama must figure out something else to do with the punting job. Skyler DeLong earned Nick Saban’s ire on the sideline after the second of his two very bad punts. Whether Bama goes back to Mike Bernier, or tries freshman walk-on Ty Perine in the role, something has to change.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN