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Texas A&M wrap-up: Last line of defense holds as time runs out

College football, like any sport, is a frequent user of math. We use it to count yardage gained, to tally up sacks, to measure a quarterback’s accuracy. When we want to explore more complicated concepts, we introduce geometry to talk about tackling angles, measure the height of passing parabolas, and discuss the collective volume of buyouts that Auburn owes former head coaches.

But sometimes, the equations aren’t very complex. Sometimes, the number we’re trying to solve for is very small – say, the number of losses a team can expect to suffer before losing its grip on a potential College Football Playoff slot. For most teams, that number is one.

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Alabama has gone into the playoffs multiple times with a single loss affixed to its schedule. Prior to the start of this game, ask most Alabama fans which game they would have been worried about losing, and it wouldn’t have been this one – Jalen Milroe or no Jalen Milroe at quarterback.

It’s a good thing, then, that Alabama found a way to win this game, because the game that is scaring most Alabama fans right now is the next one – Jalen Milroe or no Bryce Young at quarterback.

If Nick Saban wanted highlight tape from a game in which Alabama should have won going away and instead either lost or stumbled into a victory, he sure got it from Texas A&M. The Aggies are a team looking for a soft place to land. Despite being apparently more dangerous with Haynes King at quarterback rather than Max Johnson, it’s a safe bet the Aggies haven’t lost their last game of the season. And yet, Alabama let Texas A&M off the mat on multiple occasions.

It didn’t help Alabama in this game that Texas A&M’s all-NIL defensive line finally started to play up to their alleged contracts and/or reputations. You could kind of feel that coming, starting with Nick Saban’s preseason rant about how A&M had stretched the intended boundaries of NCAA name-image-likeness regulations, and then the obvious thirst for revenge it engendered in both the Aggie players and especially their coach, erstwhile Nick Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher. Throw in the Curse of the Backup Quarterback, Bryce Young’s injury and a suddenly leaky kicking game, and the ingredients were all in the pot and ready for Fisher to make a batch of Upset Stew.

But that’s where Alabama’s defense stepped in. Despite Alabama’s struggles on offense and failure to secure the football, the Crimson Tide outgained Texas A&M 399-323. The defense held the Aggies to 2.8 yards per carry on the ground, and star RB Devon Achane never was really a threat. Texas A&M’s best and most dangerous plays all ran through King, who finally looked like the star QB Fisher once envisioned him to be – even if his completion percentage was held to a subpar 54.4%.

So it was fitting that the game came down to 3 seconds, from Alabama’s 2-yard line, and a play that King had made earlier in the game once already, but the second time around, the Alabama defense stepped up and put an end to the silliness. Alabama shifted its inside coverage to eliminate the middle quick-out routes, and King was left with no choice but to throw short of the sticks, and didn’t complete the pass anyway.

Alabama lives to fight another day with its unbeaten record intact, but this is already the third time in 2022 that things have gone sideways in a game Alabama was supposed to easily control. There was the win at Texas that came down to a final Alabama field goal. There was the win over Arkansas that had closed down to a 5-point margin heading into the fourth quarter, only for Alabama to eventually blow it open with two long runs from Jahmyr Gibbs. And now, Alabama has bested Texas A&M, but given the mindset of the Aggie team, how much can Alabama still expect to accomplish against better teams like Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU and Mississippi State?

Maybe this edition of the Crimson Tide is a bunch of cardiac kids that have to be put in precarious positions in order to play their best. Maybe Bryce Young really is just that important to Bama’s success. Maybe Alabama really is just going to get the best out of every mediocre quarterback and every embattled head coach and every team looking to make a statement in the midst of their own disappointing season. Whatever the case, when the math starts to add up in those categories, the result is rarely a favorable sum. Tennessee is next, and Alabama needs the engine firing on all cylinders as it heads to Knoxville.

Otherwise, the numbers that come up in Alabama’s next game might be the Crimson Tide’s own.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Texas A&M:

1. Milroe’s night was uneven at best. Alabama’s playcallers did him no favors, either. Start with the fact that 17 of Texas A&M’s 20 points came off turnovers. The other 3 points came following a missed Alabama field goal. The one thing Jalen Milroe had to do to keep Alabama comfortable, he could not do – secure the football. Milroe fumbled twice and threw an interception, although the interception was a 44-yard heave on a third-and-long, and basically served as a long punt. Far more disturbing was Milroe’s body language as the game progressed. He seemed to lose confidence, and began double-clutching throws in the fourth quarter. To put it bluntly, it appeared the moment got too big for him late in the game. Perhaps the reason for a lot of that was a gameplan that was extremely unfriendly to a young backup quarterback whose happy place is a zone-read system without a lot of progression throws. But Alabama never could figure out a way to consistently take advantage of those skills. One of the few RPO plays with a quick trigger went to WR Jermaine Burton for a long touchdown.

So why could Alabama not do more of that? It’s worth noting – and complaining about – Alabama’s inability to scheme wide receivers open. Every player in Alabama’s A-rotation is more talented than any wide receiver Mississippi State, for example, has on its roster, yet the Bulldogs have guys standing in windows all over the field. It is Bill O’Brien’s job to figure these things out, yet it’s simply not getting done with any kind of consistency. Alabama’s offensive output right now is tied to how well the running backs can run the ball when the safeties are stuck high, then wait for the defense to cheat down and ultimately go over the top. Or, when Bryce Young is having a good day, inject tempo into the passing game and go down the field 6 or 8 yards at a time.

We’ll say it now: Unless Bryce Young can come back for the Tennessee game, Alabama is probably going to lose this coming Saturday. This isn’t because Jalen Milroe isn’t capable as a quarterback; it’s because right now, Alabama is asking him to do too many things he isn’t comfortable doing. It’s not a good mix.

2. Jahmyr Gibbs once again stole the show on offense. He needs some help from the reserves. Jase McClellan’s fumble was an extra-effort play that went bad, but McClellan had only 32 yards on 10 carries on the night. Roydell Williams made the most of one series and appeared to be running the ball well (3 carries, 19 yards) but wasn’t heard from again. Trey Sanders got no carries. This was basically the Gibbs-and-Milroe show; Gibbs finished with 154 yards on 21 carries (7.3 avg.) and another 3 catches for 13 yards, while Milroe was also over the 100-yard mark as a rusher before sack yardage was taken away. Gibbs has now had two consecutive breakout weeks as Alabama’s featured tailback, but his size dictates that Alabama find him at least one and maybe two reserves that can give him a breather.

3. Will Anderson finished with 8 QB hurries, and was held badly on multiple near-sacks. When the moment gets big, Anderson shows up. He, Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell all played well from their OLB spots in this game, but it was Anderson who was the most disruptive. Recording 8 QB hurries in the same game is almost unheard of, and on a couple of those occasions, Haynes King barely got the ball out for a throwaway to keep Anderson from recording his favorite stat.

Regrettably, Anderson was blatantly held at least three times on his way to the quarterback. This was not a well-officiated game, start to finish, with the difference being that most calls that were missed would have favored Alabama, and most would have led to big swings at key times. No one was punished more by the indifference than was Anderson, and it almost cost Alabama something even more substantial. But we’re still amazed by how many times Anderson seems to rise to the occasion – a true great in the history of a program with countless greats on the defensive side of the ball.

4. All things considered, this was a fantastic defensive effort overall. It wasn’t perfect; CB Terrion Arnold finally was made to look like a freshman for much of the game. He started it strongly and ended up getting the stop on the final pass attempt, but in between gave up several chunk plays and was flagged for a key penalty. At inside linebacker, Deontae Lawson was elevated into a starting role due to an injury to Jaylen Moody. He wavered a bit at times but ultimately found his footing late in the game. Other than those two small items, Alabama largely won the game on that side of the ball.

Alabama utilized a middle blitz scheme with MLB Henry To’o To’o several times in the first half to great effect, pressuring the A-gaps and causing confusion, especially on the right side of the Aggie offensive line. Byron Young again put forth a strong effort from his defensive end spot. Brian Branch rebounded nicely from a forgettable night in College Station in 2021, and CB Ga’Quincy McKinstry effectively shut out whichever wide receiver came to his side of the field.

If there’s a nit to pick, it’s that Alabama still hasn’t figured out how it’s going to replace DE Justin Eboigbe long-term, if Eboigbe’s neck injury proves apt to linger. Alabama used Jamil Burroughs and Jah-Marien Latham as the third-down nosetackle for much of the night, but neither was able to get much penetration. Still, holding the Aggie offense to suboptimal production in a game like this, especially while losing the turnover battle 4 to 1, was an impressive feat.

5. Reichard’s two misses were as big as the turnovers. Was it just a hiccup, or a trend? Alabama didn’t just miss two field goals in this game, Reichard also ended up giving Texas A&M three kickoff return opportunities, after being almost an automatic touchback generator through the first five games – this despite Devon Achane being a feared kickoff returner. Fortunately, Alabama stepped up its kickoff coverage and shut Achane down, yielding an average of just 15 yards per return.

Ian Jackson replaced Demouy Kennedy on coverage after Kennedy suffered an ACL injury against Arkansas, and Bama didn’t appear to miss a beat. Reichard certainly gets credit for hitting his first attempt, a 50-yarder, but misses from 47 and especially 35 yards late in the game could have proven critical. We know flawless special teams play is possible, because Alabama sees it from opponents on most weeks. It didn’t cost Bama the game here, but it certainly could have.

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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