Unlike in previous seasons, Alabama had mostly avoided the injury bug in 2020. The Crimson Tide had lost only one of its stars, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, which meant in comparison to other recent years, Alabama was getting off almost unscathed.
But in the Crimson Tide’s 52-3 win over Arkansas, Alabama may have lost the most important player from its front seven, weakside linebacker Christian Harris. Harris left after the first snap of the game, not to return, with a shoulder injury of unspecified seriousness.
Unlike Waddle’s absence, however, a void Alabama has not yet been able to truly fill, Jaylen Moody played spectacularly in Harris’ stead. How that effort translates to next week’s matchup with Florida, is hard to say.
That’s because Arkansas proved to be a mirage of a team. Either that, or Alabama is truly as dominating as it looks.
Arkansas had only been soundly defeated twice this season, by Georgia and Florida. Even Texas A&M, clearly the second-best team in the SEC West now, had only beaten Arkansas 42-31 in a game in which the Razorbacks refused to quit. Since scoring only 10 points in the opener against Georgia, Arkansas had become a relatively consistent offensive team, even if it had to try much harder than most teams to score or to even get first downs. Sam Pittman had instilled an attitude of toughness and scrappiness right out of the gate.
Against Alabama? Arkansas barely looked competent. It could be that the smoke and mirrors of Kendall Briles’ offense finally dissipated, but it’s more likely that the Razorbacks’ struggle was brought upon by the sheer dominance of an Alabama program that is truly next-level.
Arkansas’ defensive gameplan was to take the explosiveness out of Alabama’s offense. Alabama responded by dinking and dunking its way to victory six or seven yards at a time. It was one more notch in Nick Saban’s and Steve Sarkisian’s belts, that Alabama could still find a way not just to win, but also to still crack the 50-point ceiling despite never really going downfield to do it.
The bigger kudos, though, go to a defensive staff that held a dangerous, dual-threat system to just 3 points and 188 yards of total offense.
Overall, it was another total team victory, with even special teams getting into the act. Given how Alabama seems to be peaking at the right time, next week’s contest against Florida begins to look a bit more comfortable from the crimson perspective.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Arkansas:
1. DeVonta Smith may have been held in check, but his punt return TD blew the game open. The game was tied 3-3 at the time and Smith’s return for a touchdown appeared to not just flip momentum and give Alabama the lead, but also to deflate the Razorbacks. Pittman probably preached during the week to keep mistakes to a minimum and not give Alabama any breaks it didn’t deserve, and then the punt coverage team went right out and did just that. TideFans previewed the Hogs’ struggles on kick coverage, on both kickoff and punt returns. Arkansas completely lost its lane discipline on the punt in question, and Smith had to make just one cut and then turn on the jets. Arkansas’ response was to immediately fall into a funk, sort of a strange thing to do given how gamely it had played Alabama up to that point. Alabama will miss DeVonta Smith in many, many ways next season.
2. Sarkisian’s on-the-fly adjustments helped get Jones going, and the offense humming, despite being blocked from really accessing the long-distance components to its offense. Arkansas, for the most part, kept both safeties high for the entirety of the game, a dangerous plan when facing a running back of Najee Harris’ caliber. But Arkansas made that decision work – surprisingly so, in fact, at the defensive line and linebacker level. What it couldn’t do, though, was stop Alabama’s slant game and checkdowns to the tight end and running backs at the same time. Miller Forristall showed why he’s so valuable for Alabama, as he did both a solid job blocking, and leaking out of the backfield to catch short passes and keep the drive moving. Once Sarkisian and Jones realized that Arkansas was going to commit to selling out to stop the big bust plays, the offense settled into a rhythm on the short stuff. In the end, Arkansas’ defense “held” Alabama’s offense to 45 points (7 points coming off the punting unit), but more importantly kept Alabama to 100 yards below its season average for total offense.
3. Defensive line played its best game in years, and is truly dominant. New DL coach Freddie Roach has made a huge impact with this group, and Saturday was the magnum opus for this unit in 2020. Alabama kept Arkansas to just 1.9 yards per carry and 108 yards through the air. Christian Barmore showed people exactly what the term “unblockable” looks like, while Tim Smith terrorized the middle of a rebuilt Arkansas line, which found itself without starting center Ricky Stromberg late in the week. Byron Young actually led the team in tackles from a defensive end/tackle spot, a rare occurrence. Jamil Burroughs continues to get more playing time as well, and moved the pile backwards when he was in. Alabama’s numbers allow it to stay fresh up front, which will be important against Florida and other teams with more dynamic offenses.
4. Offensive line put together a solid effort, especially with Evan Neal out and Landon Dickerson nicked up in this game. Dickerson will be fine, but an injury to his wrist early in the game meant more snaps for Darrian Dalcourt than he has ever had up to this point. With Evan Neal not available due to Covid-19 contact tracing, Chris Owens got the start at right tackle; he’s started before at center, but never before at any other position. Owens did a fine job in his first major work in over a year, and showed he has developed into a valuable swing man for the Alabama offensive line. Mac Jones was never sacked, and while there weren’t a lot of big holes for the running backs early on, the line was able to keep things steadily moving forward. Poor footing due to a truly horrid field had more to do with the struggles of Alabama’s running backs than anything Arkansas defenders did. When the backups finally got in, young inside players Seth McLaughlin and Tanner Bowles both got key blocks to spring Jace McClellan on an 80-yard touchdown run. Overall, a very good day.
5. Jaylen Moody came out of nowhere to be one of the game’s defensive MVPs. It’s unclear how long Moody’s stint will last at weakside linebacker (at least for 2020), but Alabama was certainly happy to have him on Saturday. Moody made several instinctive plays, played his assignments, and generally was no step down at all from the injured Christian Miller. He had several highlight plays, given that he was part of two separate turnovers, but his play of the night may have been when he read a weakside option play while lined up on the strongside, jumped the offensive tackle, chased down the play from behind and made a swipe tackle to stop the ball carrier for a short game. One of the most frequent questions observers of this team gets is who will step into Dylan Moses’ shoes next year at middle linebacker, or failing that, who will move up at weakside linebacker and allow Harris to slide to the middle. Prior to today, we’re not sure Jaylen Moody would have been in that discussion. Tonight, he’s all over it.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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