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APSU wrap-up: Defense shines; offense rolls up the yardage, but not the points

The goals for any Week 12 game are simple: Win, and get to the Auburn game with your health intact.

Alabama did both those things Saturday, with the exception of losing LT Tyler Steen to a twisted ankle at the end of the first half. He’s expected to be ready for Auburn, however, and Alabama will also get back RB Jahmyr Gibbs, TE Cameron Latu and CB Eli Ricks. So Bama completed the big-picture check-offs in this game.

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What Alabama didn’t do, at least for the first quarter and at times in the other three, was put a cohesive offense on the field that was clearly better than the defense it was facing. Alabama again rolled up yardage – 264 through the air and 263 on the ground – but scored just 34 points, and the first-team offense was still on the field in the fourth quarter.

That’s been the complain about Alabama’s offense all year. It can be efficient, but it is rarely dynamic. Against a team like Austin Peay, an FCS program that Alabama should lap like a backmarker at Talladega, Alabama took seven minutes to score on its first drive, had issues with receivers getting separation, and wasn’t able to deliver a lot of big plays.

Alabama did, however, leverage its massive advantage along both lines of scrimmage. It was able to run the ball consistently all day, and pretty much whenever it wanted to, but not in overwhelming chunks of yardage. It couldn’t keep Bryce Young protected; Young was sacked three times and took several hard hits.

In regard to offensive identity, Alabama has struggled to develop one over the course of this season, mostly due to a more pedestrian offensive line than in recent years and especially because of a lack of cohesion in the wide receiver unit. Today, Alabama was missing tight end Cameron Latu, who has become an integral part of the passing game. And despite the temptation to empty the bench of its talented – but raw – true freshman receivers, Alabama was at its best in this game when veterans Jermaine Burton and Traeshon Holden were on the field.

It’s difficult to ever accurately gauge how Alabama does in these games, because games against FCS opponents are never supposed to be the least bit competitive. A good score is somewhere in the 50s to either zero or something very close to it. Scores may not always mean everything, but in a matchup like this, they’re a good indication of whether a team showed up ready to take care of business or not.

Defensively, Alabama absolutely did. The cynic can make note of the level of opposition, but we’ve seen other teams run through Alabama like … something … through a tin horn before; Austin Peay didn’t do that. Offensively, it’s a much more complicated question. Yes, the yardage was there. But the passing game didn’t function smoothly, and the running game was so clearly tilted in Alabama’s favor due to the size differential of the Bama OL against the Austin Peay DL, that Alabama almost couldn’t help but succeed there.

At some point, that’s going to be the methodology on which Bill O’Brien’s tenure as offensive coordinator will be judged. Alabama has recruited very well at wide receiver lately but has little to show for it in terms of production. Jermaine Burton and Tyler Harrell were highly sought-after transfers, but Harrell hasn’t played much (albeit due to injury) and Burton has struggled to consistently be part of what Alabama likes to do on offense.

Too frequently, Alabama’s passing game has been to let Bryce Young take the snap, float around behind the line of scrimmage for 6-8 seconds, and then find someone breaking loose on a comeback route. It’s why Traeshon Holden has held so much value in the offense; he works back to the ball better than any other receiver Alabama has. But that kind of “gameplan” only works when Alabama’s offensive line is able to hold its blocks infinitely. Against Austin Peay? Sure. Against LSU or Auburn? No chance.

If you came into this game just wanting to see Alabama win, you got your wish. If you wanted to see Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson play quarterback, wish granted. If you wanted to see Trey Sanders and Jamarion Miller run the ball, check. Tommy Brockermeyer and Elijah Pritchett playing offensive tackle? That happened, too.

But if you wanted to see Alabama cure the ills that have plagued it since the beginning of the year … well, you probably missed out on that one. The defense put up a strong effort, without much to fuss over. The offense, though, sort of comes down to whether you think numbers make the man, or if they are but a distraction in light of a broader conversation about effectiveness, flow and the ability to be dangerous to top opponents.

It just doesn’t feel like next week’s game against Auburn is the outright mismatch it appeared to be a month ago. Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Austin Peay:

1. Offensive line mostly did its job; Amari Kight filled in nicely for Tyler Steen. Bryce Young took three sacks but two of them were off blitzes that were probably an RB’s job to pick up, and on one of those, the RB went out in the pattern. Alabama’s running game made steady yardage with a fairly straightforward gameplan, and the line executed it well enough. The big news of the day was watching Amari Kight play nearly the entire second half in relief of Tyler Steen, who exited at the half with a turned ankle. Kight didn’t appear to miss any assignments, at least not egregiously, and if Steen isn’t 100 percent in time for Auburn, Kight at least showed that he could be competent in relief.

2. Without Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama’s running game went more downhill than usual. Jase McClellan is built for that kind of work. McClellan tallied 158 yards on 17 carries, with only one of those carries going for a loss. McClellan is well-suited to a more downhill style of running than what Bama has become with Jahmyr Gibbs in the backfield, and with Austin Peay’s size disadvantage also in play, everything was lined up for McClellan to be successful, and he capitalized on it. Roydell Williams, Trey Sanders and Jamarion Miller all ran the ball well, too, but we’ve seen instances this year where Alabama has found fool’s gold in something that worked against lesser opponents when applied to tougher teams. Auburn’s defensive line won’t be as porous as the Governors were.

3. Burton, Holden had good days at WR, but impact was low behind them. Jermaine Burton had a career day, snatching 7 receptions for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Traeshon Holden was reliable after entering the game in relief of Ja’Corey Brooks, who appeared to get banged up somehow. But Kendrick Law’s breakout game against Ole Miss didn’t translate over to this week, and Isaiah Bond allowed an Austin Peay defender to rip the ball out on a very routine tackle. Alabama couldn’t really find a way to get Kobe Prentice or JoJo Earle involved with the offense, and reserve TE Amari Niblack had a bad drop and a penalty. When the story is written about the 2022 Alabama offense, the chapters dealing with struggle will usually have a foreword regarding the wide receiver corps. Austin Peay’s secondary is capable, but there were too many times when no one other than Holden could get separation for Alabama.

4. Production from front seven was good, not great; secondary’s big plays kept the shutout intact. It seems like Alabama has failed to live up to expectations all year regarding things like creating turnovers, sack production and tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Today was no different. Alabama didn’t record a sack, but Austin Peay made it difficult by using extremely fast tempo in its spread offense. Alabama recorded only 4 tackles for loss in the running game, but Austin Peay didn’t try many conventional runs. This is more of a commentary on the season-long state of affairs at DL and LB than a specific criticism of this game. The secondary, though, stepped up, nabbing two interceptions and coming close on a handful of others. Brian Branch had a second strong game in a row, and Ga’Quincy McKinstry absolutely removed one half of the field from Austin Peay’s passing attack.

5. Bryce Young’s vision made the passing attack go, but shoulder strength may still be an issue; backups were uneven. Young’s ability to create on the fly is his best attribute in this offense, because it brings an element to the execution of the plays that the design of those same plays doesn’t automatically impart upon them. Young’s best play ended up not counting: a nine-second scramble, faking a would-be rusher out of his shorts, then finding Kobe Prentice in the end zone for the score. A flag on an offensive lineman for being too far downfield wiped the play out, however. Young finished the day with 221 yards and 2 scores, and there’s a question of whether he left some on the table due to the effects of his shoulder injury.

A deep pass to Jermaine Burton held up short, and he doesn’t always appear to have the same zip on his throws that he did prior to the injury at Arkansas. It’s still plenty good enough, but it likely remains a factor. Backups Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson both got action, and Milroe threw an interception, yet again being far too late in delivering the throw. The interception came just a play or two after also waiting too late to get a pass to Kendrick Law that would have been a touchdown if thrown a half-second sooner. Milroe could be a dangerous quarterback in the right system with the right coach, but he doesn’t play with confidence in his current role. Ty Simpson completed both pass attempts and figures to get a long look next spring to take over once Young moves to the NFL.

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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