WCU wrap-up: Jones answers questions in glorified QB showcase

 

Critics who despise the late-season games against FCS teams got every bit of ammunition they need to bring a halt to such mismatches as they watched Alabama beat the Catamounts – quite possibly the worst team to grace the Bryant-Denny Stadium field in the modern era – by a score of 66-3.

It’s not easy to come to that conclusion about any football team, because these are kids with a dream and they’re all someone’s sons. But there’s no argument to be made that Western Carolina could have belonged on the same field as Alabama. Scheduled to both give Crimson Tide starters a breather, and to serve as an analog for Gus Malzahn’s Auburn offense that Alabama will see next week, WCU’s horrific performance left some honestly wondering whether one of Alabama’s Class 7A high schools would have been a better opponent.

The whole thing, in fact, was only useful in one regard: Put Mac Jones under center as the new starting quarterback and see what he could do when there was no Tua Tagovailoa to fall back upon.

In that regard, Jones had a solid outing. He overthrew a couple of deep passes, and after that seemed to overcompensate by being late on a couple of deep throws that were completed anyway. He finished the day 10-of-12 for 275 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also made a wise decision to carry the ball once for a short gain in plus-territory rather than trying to force something that wasn’t there.

Other than Jones’ performance, the most interesting portions of the day included Tua’s tour of the sideline from the passenger’s seat of a golf cart, and a Walk-On Watch that went several names deep and included a few seniors who were playing their last games in Bryant-Denny. It wasn’t so much a game as it was a family reunion.

With Oregon losing to Arizona State later in the day, Alabama’s path to the College Football Playoff gets a bit clearer. It would help if Utah gets upset down the stretch, but Oregon was by far Bama’s greatest threat of the teams that could potentially jump the Tide in the playoff rankings. All Alabama can do now is focus on beating Auburn in Auburn – and that’s where this Mac Jones showcase might end up paying dividends.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Western Carolina:

1. An analysis of Jones’ performance showed far more good than bad. Jones, again, started off in a steady fashion but didn’t make a lot of plays early. As the game progressed and he got into the rhythm of the game, he became a weapon. This has been the M.O. of his Alabama career so far and it’s what Alabama fans hope to see next week in Auburn. If we’re to be honest about it, as Alabama fans, if we saw another team’s backup quarterback perform like Jones has against Arkansas, Mississippi State and Western Carolina, we’d be concerned. So it’s fair, as fans of Jones, to be optimistic given the body of work he’s been able to put up. Arm strength isn’t an issue, decision-making doesn’t appear to be an issue, and Jones has looked composed and confident at each step. Backup QB Lia Tagovailoa didn’t get much of an opportunity Saturday to do anything but hand off, but it did become clear rather early that Alabama is going to decisively cast its lot behind Jones rather than some kind of two-quarterback rotation. As for Jones himself, this is a job interview for 2020. If he pilots Alabama to a championship, he’ll have the inside track for the job going forward, and that’s something Jones was probably never going to get if the season had ended with Tua in charge and him cleaning up in the fourth quarter. The real question against Auburn is how well Jones will respond to the Tiger pass rush, which is something Western Carolina was wholly incapable of approximating.

2. Alabama’s defense, particularly its ILBs, were erratic early before WCU gave up hope. Four interceptions and a fumble will take a toll on anyone, especially a FCS team that barely could stay on the field with Alabama. However, prior to Xavier McKinney’s back-breaking 81-yard pick six, Western Carolina was moving the ball better than expected, especially against the middle of the Alabama defense. For a goodly portion of 2019, Alabama’s inside linebackers have looked more reactive than proactive – and more reactive than necessary, overall. Rather than knowing where the ball was probably going to go and anticipating the play, Shane Lee and Christian Harris spent the first quarter largely letting the play come to them. McKinney’s interception ended any reason WCU might have had to entertain an upset, and things devolved into panic mode for the Catamounts soon afterward. Alabama probably won’t get so lucky against Auburn. Alabama fans are counting down the days until Lee and Harris begin letting their instincts take over.

3. Alabama’s secondary set the tone, but again, consider the opposition. Xavier McKinney and Jared Mayden got two interceptions each, with one of Mayden’s coming off one of the most ridiculously ill-executed plays ever seen at Bryant-Denny Stadium (a ball fake that faked no one, followed by the QB getting blasted and throwing the ball up for grabs like he was conducting infield practice for a baseball team). Alabama’s safeties were in the face of the quarterback often; almost every blitz call worked and Western Carolina struggled with complex pickups. But again, one has to consider the level of competition here. Can Alabama translate this to a better team with a better quarterback and a more dangerous offense?

4. Barmore’s ascension in the middle is the missing piece Alabama’s DL needed. Despite getting nicked up late, Christian Barmore was the terror that Western Carolina’s offensive line won’t soon forget. He finished the day second on the tackle sheet (a rarity for an inside tackle in a Nick Saban defense), collecting 6 overall including a half-sack, a tackle for loss and a QB hurry. He also generally had his way with whatever blocker WCU assigned to stop him. Unlike the heroics of the Alabama secondary, Barmore’s output has been consistent against better opposition. He also gives Alabama a more versatile option inside than Tevita Musika or Stephon Wynn Jr. in relief of D.J. Dale. Barmore’s embrace of responsibilities in stopping the run game has been the real story as the season has gone along, as doing so has given him the chance to stay on the field on more than just third downs. It will be interesting to see whether this carries over to the Auburn game, as Dale might not be 100 percent by next week and Alabama will need to be able to generate some inside pressure against the Tiger passing game.

5. Tide’s red zone offense still needs work. Alabama entered the game 58th in the country in red zone offensive efficiency, and the Tide’s first trip into the WCU red zone ended in a field goal try. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the issue is here, but it appears to be a combination of ineffective running when the ball is right around the 5-yard line, and passing plays that aren’t quick-hitting enough. There isn’t a lot of time to let pass plays develop in the red zone, which seems to be Steve Sarkisian’s preference. Auburn started the day 22nd in red zone defensive efficiency, meaning Alabama gets no breaks next week. It’s sort of mind-blowing to consider a team that has had access to Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback all year has struggled in the red zone, but somehow Alabama managed the feat.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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