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Michigan wrap-up: Second-half adjustments, Jones’ arm the keys to big win

If you cheer for a team from the state of Michigan and you find yourself playing Alabama in Orlando in January, save yourself the travel costs and stay home for New Year’s Day.

Following a disappointing 2010 season, Alabama found itself playing Michigan State – if “playing” could be considered an accurate description of events; it was more like a systematic dismantling of the Spartan football program. Following a difficult and, again, disappointing 2019 season, Alabama got Michigan State’s hated in-state rival, Michigan, in the same venue.

The results weren’t really all that different.

Alabama played sloppy, tired-eyed defense in the first half, which allowed Michigan to control the flow of the game and the clock. But after Alabama changed up some of its defensive calls in the second half – aided by simply playing better along the defensive line – it allowed the Alabama offense to march to the forefront and wrest control of the game’s tempo from the Wolverines.

Throughout all the injury concerns of 2019, Alabama’s offense has never really been one to be affected much. The biggest loss for the offense over the course of the season – in terms of what effect it had on gameplay – may not have been QB Tua Tagovailoa, but rather tight end Miller Forristall, who missed four games following a freak throat injury. Alabama’s edge blocking was better in this game with Forristall back, to say nothing of two huge catches Forristall recorded down the stretch, one for a touchdown and another to secure a key third-down conversion.

For Michigan and its media darling coach, Jim Harbaugh, this was an ugly game. Michigan’s almost complete lack of second-half adjustments allowed Alabama to pull forward unimpeded. Nick Saban and particularly his defensive staff so outfoxed Harbaugh in the second half that the game could still be going on now and it’s unlikely Michigan would have scored again in the interim.

Much of the game was decided off the factors highlighted in our game preview, notably the gulf of difference between the skill-position athletes on the two teams. Michigan played over its heads in the first half in regards to covering Alabama’s wide receiver group, but couldn’t keep up the effort in the second half. On the flip side, Alabama’s defensive backs – even with starting CB Trevon Diggs sitting out the game in advance of the NFL Draft – boxed in Michigan’s wide receivers. Quarterback Shea Patterson’s fruitless day of failure on literally every long ball he threw – zero completions, two interceptions – didn’t help.

But in the big picture, this game didn’t mean that much beyond providing some momentum for the eventual victor heading into spring ball. In that regard, Alabama did what it had to do. But what did the successes (and failures) of the day tell Alabama about what it can expect in the future?

For one thing, QB Mac Jones hopefully put to rest any concerns about what might happen if either Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t come back, or incoming freshman Bryce Young doesn’t immediately acclimate to SEC-level football. Jones’ performance, especially in the pocket, was as good as anything Alabama has produced in the Saban era and better than most. While Michigan’s Shea Patterson might have been mulling his eventual draft position, it was Jones who outplayed him, putting forth a better mix of accuracy – especially on deep passes – and moxie.

The key questions moving forward, though, concern mostly the defense. Alabama’s defensive line played acceptably well overall against Michigan, but was a weak point for most of the season due to injury. LaBryan Ray’s return, which was expected to have happened before now, may not be assured if his injury doesn’t heal more quickly. Alabama will get MLB Dylan Moses back, but must find new outside linebackers in the wake of Anfernee Jennings graduating and Terrell Lewis heading to the NFL Draft a year early.

Still, finishing the season with a win carries with it its own value. The offseason will be a little less difficult, a little more optimistic. And any time Alabama gets the chance to make a clear statement of superiority over a power team from another conference, it ought to take full advantage.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Michigan:

1. Mac Jones’ day was worthy of multiple awards, and sets Bama up for ’20. Obviously, Tua Tagovailoa’s impending decision whether to come back to Alabama for his senior season or head on to the NFL will be widely anticipated, and it should be. But Mac Jones should have forever dispatched any concerns about his ability to take over in such a situation. While Lia Tagovailoa was more highly touted coming out of high school and Bryce Young is certainly a highly anticipated recruit in his own right, if Tua leaves, someone is going to have to actively beat out Jones for the job. Jones’ ability to step up in the pocket while staying focused downfield was a huge reason for Alabama’s win today, and were it not for Jerry Jeudy’s 204 receiving yards, Jones would have been a runaway MVP choice. His showing in the win today was good in its own right; his presence heading into 2020 gives Alabama an edge that few other teams can claim.

2. Defensive adjustments – and Michigan’s inability to counter-adjust – cinched the game. This game was won at halftime, when Alabama changed up the defense somewhat, playing more aggressively in the second half, along with moving DE Raekwon Davis to nosetackle and taking advantage of his quicker step off the snap. Without having to account for as much team speed as it would against a typical SEC opponent, Alabama was able to commit more blitz resources in the second half and leave players in one-on-one matchups more frequently. What was most curious was Michigan’s lack of a response; the Wolverines seemed to get away from its running game, trying to attack Alabama through the air and especially deep, an ill-fated strategy given Shea Patterson’s struggles with the deep ball. It was a confluence of just the right thing at the right time from the Bama defensive staff … and the wrong thing at the wrong time from the Michigan offensive staff.

3. Najee Harris’ stretch run leaves Bama fans wondering what’s to come. Most of the interest in which juniors are leaving early for the NFL Draft has centered on Tua Tagovailoa, Dylan Moses and the wide receivers. Running backs are viewed more as commodities in modern football. But the way Najee Harris closed out the 2019 season ought to make Bama fans pause. Harris’ second-half output was staggering, he got better with every game and he got better in every game as those games went along. Replacing him isn’t going to be easy. Alabama has Trey Sanders redshirting, Brian Robinson Jr. and Keilan Robinson coming up from the current depth chart, and a talented true freshman class. But Harris’ performance in this game and earlier ones really showed the value he brought to this roster. He won’t be replaced easily.

4. Big plays from LB Shane Lee and CB Josh Jobe highlighted timely defensive efforts. Lee didn’t have his best game in crimson by far, but his sack of Shea Patterson to put Michigan out of field goal range late was as important a play as any other single play of the afternoon. Christian Harris showed flashes of the talent Alabama hopes will make him the next great inside linebacker here. Cornerback Josh Jobe, though, was the big winner of the day. Playing only because Trevon Diggs elected to skip the bowl game, Jobe harassed Michigan receivers all day and fittingly closed the game out with an interception in the end zone. Jobe is a physical corner with good ball skills and if he plays next year the way he did today, he’ll be CB1 for the Alabama defense. Jobe started games early in the 2019 season but has had issues with putting bad plays behind him. Today, he had no bad plays to have to forget.

5. Mike Bernier went out on a high note. For the second year in a row, Bernier had to ride to the rescue when Alabama’s punting game blew up in some way. Last year, he replaced Skyler DeLong starting with the Tennessee game after DeLong was infected with a case of the yips. After DeLong reclaimed the job in the spring, Bernier briefly entered the transfer portal but ultimately decided to come back. By that time, he’d been passed by both Will Reichard and Ty Perine as well, making him the fourth-string punter until Reichard’s season-ending injury. Bernier passed DeLong later in the year, then was pushed into action against Michigan when Perine became unavailable for reasons the coaches have yet to address. His final Bama game saw him punt 6 times, pinning 4 of them inside the 20-yard line, including a pair inside the 5. Bernier may not have had the strongest leg, but he never put Alabama in harm’s way. Congrats to him and all the other seniors.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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