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USM wrap-up: USM lost the trenches, lost Jameson Williams, and lost by an ugly score

Sometimes, a cake is just a cake.

Our pregame Alabama-Southern Miss preview spent a good bit of focus on the OL-DL cross-matchups in this game, because that’s where Alabama looked to have its biggest advantage. The Golden Eagle offensive line held the ignominious distinction of ranking in the bottom 10 in the country in both tackles for loss allowed (a running game stat) and sacks allowed (a passing game stat). The analysis was nothing fancy, its meanings not hidden. You didn’t have to be a genius to understand it. Southern Miss just didn’t have the ability up front to keep Alabama at bay, or consistently challenge its defense, and it was going to suffer for it.

Sometimes, a cupcake is … just a cupcake.

Southern Miss hasn’t always belonged in the bakery. For many years, there was meat on these Eagles’ bones, in large part due to USM’s geography. Alabama and Auburn were limited to 25 signees a year. Troy was playing in what is now called FCS. Neither UAB nor South Alabama even fielded a program. And on top of that, the Golden Eagles weren’t limited by the SEC’s restrictions on the number of partial qualifiers that could be signed out of high school.

For that reason, for many years the Golden Eagles were legitimately better than either in-state rivals Ole Miss or Mississippi State. There were times they were a little better than Auburn or Alabama, too.

But the explosion of what is now called the Football Subdivision, or FBS, has reduced USM football. Not distilled it, nor refined it, but simply reduced it. While USM’s reputation as an academic institution has continued to climb through the years, and its facilities are now nothing to be ashamed of, Southern Miss just doesn’t have the draw – or more accurately, the extra trump cards in its deck – that it once had.

The USM team that took the field Saturday against Alabama was one of the most overmatched Golden Eagle programs to roll into Tuscaloosa in decades. In addition to what has already been said about the offensive line in particular, add in a lack of playmakers in the receiving corps, a defensive backfield that just couldn’t match up outside with Alabama’s far superior receivers, and quarterback play that was borderline for this level. Yes, Alabama had a lot to do with making Southern Miss look so pedestrian, of course. But there’s a decent bit of evidence to suggest Mercer would take this Southern Miss team to the brink, if not all the way into the abyss.

While Southern Miss has its own problems to deal with, Alabama could have sleepwalked through this game and a lot of fans would probably have understood. Alabama had just come out of a physical game in Gainesville, Fla., a week before, hanging on at the end to beat the Florida Gators and remain atop the polls. Not getting up for a game against USM? Understandable. For that matter, Florida took a half of football to get its own mind right and pull away from overmatched Tennessee while this game was taking place.

Alabama didn’t fall into that trap, however. Alabama was focused, dynamic and clearly had a plan to improve, especially on offense. Alabama rotated more players on defense, and started the rotation earlier in the game than is typical. In the end, Bama was still fresh, and still dealing out punishment – and Southern Miss could do nothing but take it.

While this game was being played, Alabama’s Oct. 2 opponent, Ole Miss, was just watching. There are differing thoughts on whether it’s more beneficial to hide wrinkles from future opponents, or throw so much out there for inspection that there is no chance to work on a way of stopping it all. Against Southern Miss, Alabama really hammered in throws to the two tight end positions, as well as took more shots downfield. We’ll see what effect that has on Ole Miss’ defense when the time comes.

Alabama ended this game with enough to work on that Nick Saban probably isn’t too worried about Bama’s players getting fat heads about the margin of victory. Alabama’s defense still has to clean up coverage misfires down the middle against tight ends – USM’s Grayson Gunter caught 3 passes for 61 yards and was open several other times, but Ty Keyes’ pocket broke down before he could get Gunter the ball – and as crazy as this sounds following a game where Alabama returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, there were too many penalties on punt returns and a pair of near snafus from JoJo Earle fielding punts for special teams to have gotten a gold star.

Repeating those mistakes against Ole Miss could prove deadly. Against Southern Miss, though, the game was still a cakewalk.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Southern Miss:

1. Williams’ first KO return was a gut shot; Bama needs more of that, but fewer flags. Imagine you’re Southern Miss, you’ve just won the opening coin toss and elected to defer, and now there’s a chance to stop Alabama on a three-and-out, get the ball back, and get an early lead – except you kick it to a track star and watch him drop a 100-yard return in your lap and now you’re down 7-0. Southern Miss looked deflated less than a minute into the game, and by the time Alabama got three scores on the board, this game was already over for all practical purposes.

We’ll focus on Jameson Williams for a moment because he deserves the praise: Having a guy with his speed, and his nose for the big play, is just about unfair. Williams ran away from tacklers on both returns, and then dusted two defensive backs on an 81-yard touchdown reception in between those two plays. He’s proven he can do this against better athletes, too. Having said that, Alabama left a lot more return yardage on the table. JoJo Earle had multiple long punt returns wiped out by penalty.

Trey Sanders got flagged for a block in the back that was close, but a good call; Earle also had a return wiped out by a holding flag that wasn’t so much holding as it was an outright tackle by one of Alabama’s blockers on a USM gunner. Alabama came into this game as one of the most penalized teams in the country, and lack of focus and concentration on special teams tends to make that problem worse. It was frustrating watching Earle’s returns get wiped out, but Williams’ record-setting day cures a lot of ills.

2. Bama DL kept Southern Miss pinned and shortened the playcalling sheet. QB Ty Keyes was harassed mercilessly from start to finish. Alabama got 2 sacks, 9 QB hurries and hit Keyes several other times either just as the ball was released, or when Keyes was trying to direct option running plays. At one point, Keyes would have been knocked out of the game on a third-down hit had the Golden Eagles had another offensive snap in the drive. Unfortunately for USM, this is a problem that has reared its head in several games prior to this one; the Golden Eagle offensive line just isn’t up to the task.

Alabama was able to get pressure up the middle as well as getting it from its edge rushers. Will Anderson Jr. had another fine day, as did Phidarian Mathis, LaBryan Ray and Jamil Burroughs. Alabama was able to utilize Ray as a nose tackle on 3rd-and-long several times, with the two OLBs, Anderson and Drew Sanders, playing the tackle/end spots. Whether Alabama can have success going small against future SEC opponents is another matter, but it worked today time and again, blowing up USM playcalls and taking any long-developing options out of the coaches’ hands.

3. Expanded personnel rotation gave more players opportunities, cut exhaustion risk. In addition to LaBryan Ray playing early and often, Alabama utilized DT Stephon Wynn Jr. much earlier than usual. Safety Daniel Wright played dime for all four quarters (Malachi Moore and Brian Branch continue to split Star safety in a weird way – one player starts and plays until the half, the other takes over after the second-half kickoff and plays through to the end).

Jamil Burroughs didn’t enter early, but did make an impact. DE Monkell Goodwine got his first action as a Crimson Tider, albeit very late in the game. Shane Lee got late action at WLB after sitting out the first few games of the season with an injury. The addition of Wynn to the DT group headed by Mathis, Tim Smith and D.J. Dale seemed to go a long way to keeping that group fresh. Saban had mentioned a need to work on snap totals after the Florida game and it will be interesting to see if this sticks.

4. Bama completed 8 passes to tight ends, and both starters (especially Cameron Latu) are becoming red zone threats. Alabama completed 8 passes for an aggregate 162 yards to Cameron Latu and Jahleel Billingsley. It was the first game Alabama seemed to make a specific effort at such performance, and it paid off in spades. Cameron Latu continued his display of red zone prowess by catching a touchdown pass, recovering a fumble at the 1-yard line and walking it in for another touchdown. Billingsley went over 100 yards in receptions. Kendall Randolph deserves a special shoutout for playing the role of sixth OL; when he’s in the game as a blocking tight end, Alabama’s running game tends to go forward. The increased workload for the tight ends is what drew our earlier comment about Ole Miss having to work on an additional wrinkle to the offense. We don’t think Alabama is done developing this position, either.

5. Bryce Young had his best day at UA and is quickly becoming the next great Alabama quarterback. We’ve seen his work against better opponents in Miami and Florida; add in today’s ridiculous stat line – 20-for-22, 90.9%, 313 yards, 5 touchdowns, 1 interception – and it’s clear Young is making progress toward joining his three predecessors in NFL success one day. Young was sharper than ever on deep passes, although his interception was partly an underthrow on a deeper route to go along with Jameson Williams making a poor attempt at fighting off a defensive back for the ball. Young saw the field well, felt pressure like a seasoned veteran (the dump-off touchdown pass to Jase McClellan was masterful) and didn’t make errors in judgment, forced or otherwise. Several SEC teams have struggled unexpectedly with QB play in 2021; Alabama is certainly not one of those teams.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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