NMSU wrap-up: Bama overwhelms Aggies, but injury bug bites again

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Alabama did everything it was supposed to do against New Mexico State, including pleasing head coach Nick Saban, who sounded positively cheerful in the postgame press conference.

What Alabama couldn’t do, though, was escape this game without significant – and multiple – major injuries.

Alabama won 59-3, dominated all phases of the game and did nothing to help New Mexico State dispel the notion that it was the worst FBS school to take the Bryant-Denny Stadium field in perhaps … ever. Going forward, however, Alabama will have to make do without its primary punt returner, its second second-team running back of the season, and have to manage a handful of other injuries to other members of its supporting cast that have proven recurring (S DeMarcco Hellams’ deep thigh bruise) or potentially significant to their role (OL Javion Cohen’s wrist injury that required surgery).

Watching New Mexico State try to manage the Bryant-Denny Stadium experience was a bit comical, starting with a small gaggle of Aggie fans who were clearly impressed, if not overwhelmed by the fact their game with Alabama rated a military flyover. Even though the stadium appeared half-full at best, Alabama was able to control most every significant moment in the game, and Aggie players looked clearly flustered when the initial play broke down.

On the Alabama sideline, once the typical slow start in a breakfast game was overcome, it was simply a methodical dismantling of NMSU, as Saban mostly cleared his bench, which included playing four quarterbacks and a pair of running backs who began the year playing other positions.

With Florida’s game against Samford turning into something Rod Serling would have been proud to narrate, and with Auburn laying a second-half egg against Mississippi State so big that MSU might be able to use it in lieu of the Egg Bowl trophy when Ole Miss comes to Starkville on Nov. 25, getting out of Bryant-Denny with a 56-point win by itself was a victory for the Crimson Tide – even though Alabama’s game was never in doubt, even after New Mexico State opened the scoring with a 50-yard field goal. Saban bristled at questions in the postgame press conference that focused on the Aggies’ opening drive, preferring to focus on all the things Alabama did well.

There may be a secondary method to that. Alabama is still a young team, one that is getting younger by the game due to an ever-lengthening injury report. The primary advantage Georgia holds over Alabama right now? It’s not the physicality or experience of the Bulldog defense or its offensive line – it’s maturity, and familiarity with adversity. Had Saban laid into his patchwork offensive line for an assignment bust that got Bryce Young rocked on his final snap, or commented on a late-game comedy of errors in the receiving corps that included Thaiu Jones-Bell stopping on a play because he thought he’d stepped out of bounds (he hadn’t) and Ja’Corey Brooks losing a touchdown catch due to a holding penalty, that would have been the wrong song sung at the wrong moment.

Alabama will host Arkansas next week before busing over the Auburn for the regular-season finale. The Razorbacks are more than good enough to upset Alabama in Bryant-Denny, but if the Tide focuses on its assignments like it did from about the 6-minute mark of the first quarter onward today, an upset is very unlikely to happen.

But please, enough with the injuries already.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-New Mexico State:

1. Alabama’s defensive front disrupted QB timing and neutralized Aggie receivers. The one unit New Mexico State could legitimately brag about was its wide receiver corps, but Alabama’s defensive front put so much pressure on QB Jonah Johnson that the receivers never really had time to develop their routes. Johnson was 19-of-30 for 129 yards, which actually looks better on paper than it did in the game. He also somehow managed to finish with positive yardage rushing (14 carries, 5 yards) despite being sacked 7 times. Alabama also added 4 QB hurries, but the statistician must have taken mercy on Johnson’s offensive line, because he was harassed and hit multiple times in the game. LaBryan Ray got 2 of the 4 hurries the stat sheet recorded, along with one of the sacks, and he was highly effective from his position as nosetackle in a rabbit front. For that matter, Alabama played quite a bit of its 2-4 sub front and even the sub-of-a-sub front with one DL at the nose and as many as five linebackers aligned in an array around him. Johnson is fortunate to have a 6’3”, 230-pound frame, because he took a beating.

2. Bryce Young had another fantastic day … and will need more of them with the RB room depleted. Young hit on at least his first 13 pass attempts and finished the day as the picture of efficiency, a hallmark for him in every game but the Texas A&M loss. He threw 5 touchdowns and no interceptions, and suffered one sack that was the fault of an OL protection call gone wrong. That hit still resulted in a fumble, which might be the only negative outcome he’s shown to be prone to, but by that time in the game today, no one was worried about anything other than Young walking back to the sideline unscathed. With no clear answer to the backup running back situation – Trey Sanders still can’t take on a full workload – Young will have to throw more down the stretch and Brian Robinson Jr. will have to stay in more often to block for him. Alabama has been incredibly blessed with quarterback talent over the last decade and it certainly continues in the form of Bryce Young.

3. NMSU’s lack of potency made evaluation of Bama OL almost impossible. Alabama was missing two starters and while New Mexico State being a pushover was certainly welcome, it did get in the way of evaluating RT Damieon George Jr. and LG Tommy Brown, both of whom were getting their first career starts. For much of the day, they were invisible, almost always a good thing when discussing offensive lines. For that matter, Brown got himself into the replay frame once, and that was because he was seen coming from the opposite side of the formation in an attempt to clean up the protection bust that led to Young’s lone sack and fumble. According to Saban, Darrian Dalcourt could have played in this game had it been necessary, so it appears that will mean Dalcourt will start against Arkansas with Chris Owens going back to right tackle. Initial reports on Cohen late this week suggested he’d be out for multiple weeks, but Saban specifically said he’d be back to practice this week. If that proves not to be the case, we’re not sure whether Brown would get another start at left guard, or whether Owens would go there and George start again at right tackle. Speaking of Owens, snap quality was inconsistent in this game, pointing to a reason why Dalcourt is the starting center to begin with. About the only OL evaluation that could be done concerned Alabama’s second unit, as it at least got somewhat closer to an honest comparison against NMSU’s front. In that regard, the second group didn’t look as sharp as hoped, although Alabama began mixing up the playcalling so that the Aggies couldn’t key on a running play each snap, which improved the situation. The key there for Alabama? Stop getting hurt.

4. The losses of JoJo Earle and Roydell Williams are about all Alabama can take on offense. Earle is the easier of the two to replace, as Slade Bolden is more than competent as a punt returner, and Earle had reached a true freshman plateau of sorts in regard to getting open, perhaps having already been passed by Traeshon Holden. The loss of RB Roydell Williams, though, hurts badly. Trey Sanders had a good second half of this game in relief, but he’s not the blocker Williams is (and Williams wasn’t the blocker Brian Robinson is), which basically puts the game on Robinson’s shoulders alone if it’s late and close. Now Alabama has to ready a third back. Converted true freshman receiver Christian Leary showed nice zip and burst on a handful of plays, but he is small by Alabama standards. Converted freshman linebacker Demouy Kennedy is much larger, but he didn’t display the cutting ability of the other backs. It might come down to blitz pickup, which would favor Kennedy. With Camar Wheaton apparently not an option for 2021, Alabama might have to consider moving additional players, or readying a walk-on like Jonathan Bennett just in case. So far, Alabama’s injuries on offense have been mostly contained to the supporting cast level, but even enough of those can have a devastating effect long-term.

5. The chance to develop depth today will help in the future. Alabama’s second WR unit got a lot of playing time, as did the second and third front sevens. Khyree Jackson got his first real action at cornerback with Marcus Banks headed to the transfer portal. Kristian Story made a nice contribution from a safety position. DL Jah-Marien Latham got on the field ahead of Jamil Burroughs (as did true freshman Monkell Goodwine), and Stephon Wynn Jr., who already gets occasional snaps with the 1s, played a bunch and did well in the middle against a center who transferred to New Mexico State from Ole Miss. And then there were Leary and Kennedy at running back, for whom every available snap right now is like gold. The best stories of the day? Backup PK Jack Martin making a field goal, and 4th-string QB Braxton Barker, a walk-on, getting on the field finally and completing a pass to Agiye Hall. The body language from Hall and fellow WR Javon Baker wasn’t the best, but with Earle out, here’s hoping both can be rejuvenated in practice somewhat now that there’s an opportunity in front of both. Baker made a tough diving catch in this one and seems to have all the tools; now’s the time for another receiver or two to step up.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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