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Mercer wrap-up: Half-baked effort gives Saban plenty of fuel for Week 3 reckoning

There’s a sequence in the beloved baseball movie “Bull Durham” where Trey Wilson as Skip and Robert Wuhl as Larry discuss the concept of “lollygaggers.” So classic a scene it was, that ESPN reshot it with the cast of Baseball Tonight, getting a memorable performance out of Harold Reynolds in the Skip role and the well-aged Peter Gammons wearing nothing but a towel and a guilty look on his face.

It would be oh-so-easy to imagine Nick Saban staging a second re-shoot of the scene this week as Skip, given Alabama’s lethargic 48-14 performance against Mercer. Maybe Cedric Burns could fill the Larry role.

Saban: You guys. You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. You know what that makes you? Larry!”

Burns: “Lollygaggers!”

Saban: “Lollygaggers.”

Alabama’s offense took three series to get going and eventually stumbled into the half with less than 200 yards of total offense. Fortunately for the offense, the defense played a sterling first half, keeping Mercer’s offense pinned in its own shadows, and the Bama special teams took the air out of Mercer’s sails with a blocked punt that Jase McClellan scooped up and ran back for a touchdown.

And then halftime came.

For the second half, the script flipped, with Bryce Young throwing his second and third touchdowns of the game before yielding to Paul Tyson and Jalen Milroe to finish out the day. But whatever Nick Saban may have yelled at the offense apparently went in and out of the defense’s ears, as Bama allowed two touchdowns to Mercer on busted coverage plays. Bama was also flagged 9 times for 95 yards, but at least won the turnover game, picking off Mercer quarterbacks twice and recovering its own fumble once.

The result was an uncomfortable 48-14 win over a team Alabama probably should have shut out, and by a much larger margin. It mimicked the feeling of sitting in a fancy chair with a lumpy cushion – it got the job done, but it could have been so much more.

And unfortunately, for the second week in a row, Alabama will have to await word from a next-day medical examination on the status of one of its stars. Having lost one of its two bookend defensive ends in the opener, Christopher Allen, Alabama watched its best player, OLB Will Anderson, leave the field after being on the receiving end of a nasty cut block from Mercer RB Fred Davis. Initial reports suggested Anderson escaped serious injury, but in his postgame press conference, Nick Saban said he believed Anderson would be “questionable” for the Florida game.

Speaking on Saban’s postgame chat with the press, if there was any question how frustrated Saban was with the effort put forth today, it only took about 5 minutes of listening to the press conference to get a clear picture regarding the low boil Saban found himself simmering in after having a few minutes to reflect on the game and the effort put into it. Every question was met with a degree of annoyance, every answer turning into a story of accountability, effort and borderline disgust at the lack of the first two.

Granted, this tends to happen to a lot Saban’s Alabama teams, especially the young ones and especially in Weeks 2 and 3, if those games are against lesser foes. But Week 3 this year won’t be against an also-ran – it will be Alabama’s SEC opener, against Florida in Gainesville, a Gator team looking for revenge after last December’s near-miss in the SEC Championship Game.

In other words, there’s really no time to lose. There are no more auditions; it’s crunch time. And with injuries starting to pile up, the one thing Alabama doesn’t have time for … is lollygagging.

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

1. Starting with the good: Alabama has fantastic depth at cornerback. Neither Josh Jobe nor Jalyn Armour-Davis, Alabama’s starting cornerback duo, was available to play today as a result of injuries sustained against Miami last week. Neither was able to practice against Mercer’s unusual offense, so Alabama opted to go with Marcus Banks and Ga’Quincy “Kool-Aid” McKinstry as its starters. The result? Both players picked off passes. No big deal. Together with JUCO transfer Khyree Jackson, Alabama has five true cornerbacks on this team who could probably start anywhere in the country, to go along with hybrid safety-corners Brian Branch and Malachi Moore. Uncommon riches for sure.

2. In a comparison of quarterbacks, there really wasn’t much comparison. Bryce Young has looked like a seasoned veteran now in two starts as, technically, a freshman. Even when Alabama’s offense struggled in the first half, Young made mostly the right decisions and never got rattled. For Mercer, starter Carter Peevy simply doesn’t have the arm strength of a college quarterback. Mercer obviously likes what he brings to the table in other ways, but Alabama held Peevy to 9 yards and an interception. When he tried to throw deep, he gave receivers no chance. Backup Fred Payton showed a much stronger arm, but if Mercer had allowed him to throw more than 15 passes, he would have finished with far more than just the one interception he was tagged with. For Alabama, there’s probably still a fight going on between Paul Tyson and Jalen Milroe for the backup spot, but it’s hard to tell the status of that battle given Milroe was in there just to run clock. His skill set harkens back to Blake Sims, while Tyson was allowed to throw more but showed issues with accuracy.

3. OL, for second week in a row, outlasted more than dominated its opponent. For a good bit of the first half, there was a breakdown on just about every Alabama offensive snap. More worrisome was the fact Mercer rarely blitzed in the early going. The Bears rushed only three or four defensive linemen for the entirety of the first half, yet on several plays, Alabama lost one-on-one matchups against the Mercer DL that resulted in hurried or unsuccessful plays. Mercer began to blitz more in the second half, but Alabama’s OL tightened up significantly, sort of counter-intuitive given the struggles of the first half. For the most part, this was what we saw in the opener, except coming against FCS Mercer, it was more concerning this time. Alabama needs to clean this up.

4. Safety play cost Alabama two touchdowns, although Hellams’ return bolstered the run defense. The Mercer touchdown that went over McKinstry was likely the fault of Daniel Wright failing to rotate over to help out behind the play, while Mercer’s first touchdown pass was the result of either Jordan Battle or one of Alabama’s extra safeties missing the coverage call. Battle appeared to play his man as if he were in zone coverage, but the other side of the secondary was in a man call. The fact it was two of Alabama’s most seasoned veterans making these mistakes pointed to the issues Saban raised in the press conference regarding focus.

5. If Will Anderson is lost for the year, Alabama’s defense gets significantly more pedestrian. Chris Braswell and Drew Sanders would be the starters, with Dallas Turner, King Mwikuta and Keanu Koht the backups, likely in that order. Sanders started this game in place of the injured Chris Allen, and played probably his best game at Alabama front-to-back. He was pushing Allen in the early going of 2020 before Allen pulled away from the field, so that wasn’t a tremendous surprise. The problem with Braswell, Turner or Mwikuta replacing Anderson is none of them are as beefy as Anderson is, and run containment could be a factor. This is where the absence of the departed Ben Davis comes into play, because Davis’ strength was run containment. Alabama’s defense continues to carry the offense right now, but the load gets a lot heavier if Anderson isn’t there to help split up the weight.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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