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Arkansas wrap-up: Three quarters of domination, one of despair, and now Bama waits on its medical team

For a game that started so well … then nearly collapsed so completely … before again finishing on a high note, it’s not clear what takeaway an Alabama fan should have from the Crimson Tide’s 49-26 defeat of Arkansas other than that ultimately, Bama survived and advanced.

With the game in the rear-view mirror, all eyes will now turn to the medical tests that will be performed in the coming days on starting QB Bryce Young, who left the game in the first half with what was diagnosed at the stadium as a sprained shoulder. Nick said Young would be “day-to-day.” But most sprained shoulders take a bit longer than that to heal.

While fans were wringing their hands, Alabama’s players and coaches at least got down to work. Behind backup QB Jalen Milroe, Alabama was forced to compress the playbook on the fly. Alabama went from attacking the SEC’s worst secondary to being forced to attack its much stronger front six. In the end, Arkansas proved just as incapable of stopping Alabama’s running game as it did its passing game.

That’s not to say the game went smoothly; Sam Pittman had made a point for his team to play strongly coming out of the half for a change, and Arkansas certainly did that in the third quarter. Unfortunately for Pittman, games have four quarters, and Alabama won the last one by a score of 21-3.

For that matter, Alabama went 49-10 using just the first, second and fourth quarters. With a healthy for all four quarters, Alabama could have named its score and Arkansas could have done very little about it.

Alabama manged to do this in the face of an injury rap sheet that runs about as long as a list of things Jimmy Hoffa was once accused of doing. In addition to Bryce Young, Alabama found itself without the following players for either all, or a significant portion of the game: C Darrian Dalcourt, S Brian Branch, DL Byron Young, DL Justin Eboigbe, RB and WR Traeshon Holden. Alabama also had to manage the snap load of WR JoJo Earle, and then lost special teams standout LB at the end of the game with what looked to be a significant knee injury.

Through all that, even with the game on the road and under immense pressure to stop the bleeding in a third quarter that piled on negative play after negative play, Alabama found a way to both pile up the points on offense and ultimately contain an offense that is one of the most dangerous in the SEC once it gets rolling.

For Jalen Milroe, this was his first exposure to real pressure while on the Alabama campus, and he responded with two key third-down conversions of 15 yards or more. One went for a touchdown – a screen pass to JoJo Earle – and the other ended up being a 77-yard scramble down to the Arkansas 3. It may not have been the stereotypical storybook ending, but it was most certainly an action-adventure tale, and if he keeps that up, someone might make a movie out of it.

It almost goes without saying that what Alabama managed to accomplish – shifting from a pass-heavy gameplan to a run-first, run-second and run-third zone-read plan with Milroe at the controls, in an instant – was one of the more impressive feats of the Bill O’Brien era as offensive coordinator. It started with a physical, consistent effort from Alabama’s offensive line and leaned heavily on an experienced running back corps. If there was a negative on offense, it came in the form of another 4-5 dropped passes that would have extended drives.

The future for this team is a bit cloudy – the flip side to Jalen Milroe coming into the game so early was that Arkansas’ defense didn’t practice for him, anymore than Alabama practiced to use Milroe against the Razorbacks – and both Texas A&M and Tennessee have now seen their chances at upset go shooting up. No matter how good Milroe is, or can be, a team doesn’t lose the reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and improve.

There will be more pressure on the defense to continue its pacing, as well as on the offensive line to continue to perform at a high level and the wide receivers to take leaps forward in a matter of mere days. But Alabama won the first of four critical games in October, on the road, in the face of tremendous adversity. And there’s value in that.

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

1. Young was set up to have a killer day. Milroe came up big when he had to, but isn’t Bryce. The differences in the skillsets of and Jalen Milroe were on full display; Milroe isn’t as polished a passer as Young is, and he isn’t going to get there in six days’ worth of prep time before Texas A&M rolls into town. But he is a big, physical runner with a strong arm, and the moment proved to not be too big for him Saturday. That last point is huge, and is what makes the difference between backups with talent and backups with functional ability. Young’s status is uncertain this week, but given what was originally feared, we’d put it at 50/50 at best that Young plays against the Aggies. If that proves to be the case, Milroe will be facing a much better defense – especially in the back end – than the one he just played, and he was just 4-of-9 passing. On the other hand, Alabama will tailor the gameplan to him in practice, and he’ll be getting starter’s reps. Could Alabama win out with Milroe at quarterback rather than Bryce Young? It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility, but doing so would require Alabama to change the offense substantially. Milroe is not going to be a stand-and-distribute quarterback, not this year and maybe not ever. But Alabama does have a zone-read playbook that includes one-read RPOs, faster-developing routes and a greater focus on its stable of running backs. If he never does anything else at Alabama, Jalen Milroe will be remembered for being clutch when it counted in this game. But we bet he goes on to do many more big things.

2. OL set the table for this win, and now must repeat its performance against A&M’s vaunted line. It can’t be as easy as switching from Darrian Dalcourt, who was reportedly scratched due to injury, to at center, but McLaughlin played one of the best games we’ve seen from an Alabama lineman in recent memory. He wasn’t alone; had a phenomenal day at left tackle, the guard trio of Javion Cohen, Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Tyler Booker were solid, and turned in yet another fine performance, which is becoming rather routine for him. McLaughlin did this same trick last year, too, especially against Georgia in the Game. In fact, it wasn’t until the Georgia rematch that McLaughlin struggled, and the guy he struggled against ended up a first-round NFL pick. We’re of a dual mind here about the Alabama offensive line: On one hand, Alabama’s OL has seen steady improvement overall anyway, since the Texas game, and that included Dalcourt, who was singled out for his good work against Vanderbilt last week. On the other, if McLaughlin helps elevate the line’s play to next-level status, it’s unfortunate for the senior Dalcourt to be unseated, but those things happen. At the very least, Alabama now knows it has seven offensive linemen it can win with, eight if you count original 2022 LG starter Kendall Randolph, who is back to mauling people as a second inline tight end. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, because for all the struggles Texas A&M has had so far this season, the one thing everyone knows and admits about the Aggies is that Jimbo Fisher has done a lot of winning on the recruiting trail the last couple of years, especially along the defensive line. The OL, in whatever configuration it takes on, will have its hands full Saturday. If Jalen Milroe is under center, the line has to come through for him.

3. The loss of S was almost as impactful for the defense as was the loss of QB was for the offense. The answer to the question of who replaces either or Malachi Moore at Star and dime safeties may actually be … nobody. Alabama largely abandoned its dime set after Branch left following a collision with teammate Henry To’o To’o, moving Moore to Star and using an extra linebacker instead of bringing an inexperienced player in off the bench. Branch’s loss was keenly felt; run fits from the safety group suddenly became very average, and Jordan Battle especially seemed to suffer without Branch in front of him. Moore didn’t play badly – his late breakup of a quick out route that would have gone for major yardage effectively ended a drive – but it showed just how thin the box safety positions are for Alabama. eventually got some work, and Alabama also has Kristian Story and Jahquez Robinson available, but like Milroe at quarterback, there will probably be some scheming in practice this week to get one or more of those players ready to go. Other than that, Alabama’s defensive backfield played another strong game overall, especially cornerbacks Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Terrion Arnold. McKinstry’s film from this game looked like the highlight reel of a -ready corner, and any team that specifically goes after him is doing it wrong. DeMarcco Hellams has probably taken over from Battle as Bama’s better playmaker from the high safety spots, and he was positively Kam Chancellor-ish in this game.

4. stepped up when they had to, and finally broke out. It’s a lot easier to do it behind an offensive line that is playing at a high level, but Alabama still has to be excited about what it got from on Saturday. The stats for Roydell Williams and weren’t nearly as impressive from a yards-per-carry angle, but the point is that when Alabama needed to run to convert, it was largely able to do so. Overall, Alabama ran the ball 42 times for 317 yards, and that’s with a 23-yard negative in there as the result of the muffed punt snap. Alabama ran for 5 touchdowns, an average per carry of 7.5 yards and by the end of the game, Arkansas was downright tired of getting hit and/or run over by Bama’s ground game. Gibbs’ first long run conjured images of Shaud Williams in Razorback Stadium on the first play of the 2002 game. Bama will need to see this kind of performance again several times this year, especially if Young’s absence from under center is extended in any way.

5. Defensive line hit a home run, especially given personnel issues. We have to keep this analysis to five points, so we’ll skip negative comments about special teams in favor of lavishing praise onto the defensive line. Justin Eboigbe was a late scratch from this game, a significant hit for two reasons. For one thing, Eboigbe has been putting together a solid senior year, going from being mostly a useful spare part to someone who has been both disruptive and versatile. Secondly, Byron Young sprained an ankle late against Vanderbilt, an injury that didn’t look good at all as he eventually hobbled off the field in a walking boot. With no Eboigbe, Young had to summon all the strength and courage he could in this one and ended up playing every time Alabama absolutely needed to get a stop. But it wasn’t just him. Jaheim Oatis had his best game so far, collapsing the interior of the Arkansas OL on more than one occasion and blowing up a 2-point conversion late in the third quarter. Tim Smith had a solid game, and continues to show marked improvement in his senior year as a sort of interior super-sub. Jamil Burroughs, who didn’t see the field against Vanderbilt, came off the bench and gave Bama some quality snaps late, as did Jah-Marien Latham. Burroughs could be special if he can put everything together. Damon Payne Jr. also got some work when the outcome was still not entirely decided. Alabama kept Young fresh also by going back to its 2-4-5 sub front with Will Anderson Jr. and Dallas Turner playing defensive end. Despite giving up 26 points, Alabama held Arkansas to 377 total yards, which in modern Razorback offense terms is a bad day. Overall, a solid performance from a unit that didn’t have all its available parts.

Follow Jess Nicholas on at @TideFansJessN

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