As sports media is wont to do, in an effort to play up the meeting between Alabama and Ole Miss Saturday afternoon, a lot of time was spent cataloging Lane Kiffin’s time as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and his relationship with Nick Saban – especially how the then-young Kiffin helped Nick Saban bring his offense into the modern era.
It was fitting, then, that Alabama defeated Ole Miss and Kiffin not only in a thorough manner, but by taking some pages out of Alabama’s pre-Kiffin playbook and running them until Kiffin found himself again sick of them – but this time, for much different reasons.
Alabama’s 42-21 win was even more dominating than the score indicated, because Ole Miss got a trash touchdown at the end following one of the worst pass interference calls of the year (and there have been several, if you have been watching SEC football in 2021). Alabama ran out to a 35-0 lead and then basically let Ole Miss trade yardage and points for time, until the Rebels ran out of the latter due to forced use of the former.
Kiffin used every trick he had. He went for nearly every fourth down he was faced with, but even that backfired on him: Alabama was 3-of-4 on fourth downs; Ole Miss was just 2-of-5.
It was a victory fueled not by Kiffin’s pro-style passing schematics and modern option-based football, but more about the basics: Run the ball. Stop the run. Pressure the quarterback. Win the trenches.
With the possible exception of winning the special teams game (neither team made much of an impact there, although Ole Miss punted the ball better), Alabama checked off all the boxes not on Kiffin’s modern playsheet of how to win big football games, but rather those of another technical mastermind from Alabama’s history: one Mr. Paul W. Bryant.
This win was so much vintage football that it carried a label of Appellation d’origine controlee. Alabama needed to at least manage the problem of Ole Miss QB Matt Corral. While Corral was not shut down, he also wasn’t allowed to become a hero. His stat line – 21-of-29, 72.4%, 213 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT – was solid in the most technical sense, but not nearly enough to affect the outcome. For Ole Miss to have won Saturday, Corral would have needed to double those marks in the very least, maybe quadruple the touchdown count.
Instead, Alabama boxed him in and frustrated him. The best work Alabama’s defense did Saturday? Control Corral’s impact in the running game. He finished with 10 carries for 3 yards and a touchdown. Mission accomplished.
Offensively, Alabama needed to control clock, compress the game and take possessions off Ole Miss’ ledger before they were ever allowed to happen. Time of possession has become the starting pitcher’s ERA of football statistics, but in the right context, it remains an important leading indicator of how a game turns. Alabama held the ball for 37:59 Saturday, compared to just 22:01 for Ole Miss.
That’s called domination.
And then there was the point of the spear for Alabama, senior RB Brian Robinson Jr., who got 36 carries on the day, recorded 171 yards and scored 4 touchdowns. Alabama has been spoiled at times by its bigger running backs under Nick Saban, and Robinson is the last of those for the foreseeable future. It didn’t appear the Rebels believed he was going to be the guy to beat them Saturday, but he punished Ole Miss’ small-by-SEC-standards defense time and again, leaving his mark not only on the game, but oftentimes on the backs and chests of Rebel defenders.
There is always a caveat to wins like these; in Ole Miss’ case, the Rebels had not been tested prior to this game. Ole Miss’ best win was over a middle-of-the-road Louisville program. Its other wins came against Austin Peay and Tulane. There’s no telling how Ole Miss will stack up when it faces the rest of what suddenly looks like a vulnerable SEC West, as Arkansas has now fallen, Texas A&M is all but done and LSU is imploding once again.
We may all find out that the Rebels were really just posers, led by a head coach for whom image is almost as important as his own playcalling feel. But what we’re also finding out is that Alabama, when it needs to, can revert to playing murderball, to great physical effect.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ole Miss
1. Robinson’s career day not only sealed the game, it showed the gap between the two RB units. In our pregame preview, we gave Ole Miss slim edges in quarterbacks and running backs, but mentioned how close those picks were. Turns out running back, at least, wasn’t close at all. Robinson was masterful, showing patience and letting Ole Miss commit to gaps before waiting on a hole to open and taking it. He scored four touchdowns, but his real work was between the 20s, where he could often be found biting off 7-yard chunks of yardage and shortening Bama’s third-down responsibilities.
On the flip side, Alabama completely controlled Ole Miss’ running game. Jerrion Ealy carried 9 times for 16 yards and caught 2 passes for 1 yard. Ole Miss’ best running back was the backup, Henry Parrish Jr., who got 47 yards on 11 totes. In all, Ole Miss rushed 34 times for 78 yards (2.3 avg.) and 2 touchdowns, which was not enough to provide enough offensive balance to keep Bama from teeing off on Matt Corral. Robinson had patiently waited his turn for a day like today, and he deserves all the accolades that come with it.
2. Bama’s edge on both lines of scrimmage was immediately evident, and never really went away. Until Alabama started trading points for minutes in the second half, there was never a time that either the Ole Miss OL or DL looked capable of challenging Alabama. The one downside of the day were 3 sacks against Alabama QB Bryce Young, but they were mostly of the coverage sack variety. Ole Miss’ DL is on the small side, and the Alabama OL had no trouble opening gaps for Robinson to slide through.
When the possession was reversed, Alabama’s defensive line was able to bring its own pressure onto Matt Corral without having to commit extra defenders. In fact, Ole Miss handled Alabama’s blitz packages very well, and Corral showed his head talent by frequently picking up blitzers immediately and throwing into the gaps they left behind. What he couldn’t do, though, was deal with Alabama dropping six or seven into coverage and still getting penetration up front. It was a rare, ideal situation Saturday for Alabama no matter who had the ball.
3. Alabama’s ILBs, criticized often early in the season, had their best day of the year. Henry To’o To’o, particularly, played up to and beyond expectations Saturday, logging 10 tackles, 1 for loss, as well as a QB hurry. We can think of only a couple of situations where he fit the wrong gap in the running game; for the overwhelming majority of the afternoon, he was a problem for Ole Miss. Christian Harris also played a solid game.
Coupled with Will Anderson’s typical havoc coming from the outside, Ole Miss’ offensive line couldn’t catch a breather. The Bama DL was often too strong or too disciplined to beat, and when the second level got involved, they were too quick for the Rebel OL to confront.
4. Safety play improved significantly; Jordan Battle may have been Alabama’s best defensive weapon outside of Will Anderson. Starting high safeties Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams combined for 20 tackles and were a large part of the reason Ole Miss couldn’t get anything started in its short passing game. With the front seven preventing Corral from trying to hit many long-developing routes, the safeties frequently cut off the underneath stuff while at the same time being a large part of the reason why the Rebel running game couldn’t get to the edge and show its speed. Kudos as well to Pete Golding and the defensive playcallers for being just as much a match for Kiffin as Kiffin supposedly was for them.
5. Bill O’Brien continues to put his own stamp on Alabama’s offensive identity. O’Brien has so far shown himself to be far more deliberate than was Kiffin or Steve Sarkisian, or especially Mike Locksley, at least when it comes to explosiveness. The tradeoff, though, is an offense that can suffocate games, and Alabama’s red zone efficiency – ranked 13th, the same as its third-down efficiency rating – means that Alabama gets better down close, something that hasn’t always been the case in Saban’s Alabama.
The use of tight ends in the red zone has, by itself, been a remarkable development. O’Brien will earn his paycheck over the coming weeks, not just for how he calls the plays but what he comes up with to replace RB Jase McClellan, who is likely done for the season with a major knee injury. From what we’ve seen so far, though, O’Brien will be up to the task.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN