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USF wrap-up: Tide rides its defense to ugly win

Whether wins are ever ugly is a subject for spirited debate, but if there is truly such thing as an ugly win, they’d find a picture of this one next to the dictionary entry.

Alabama beat South Florida 17-3 thanks largely to the intersection of good defense and a South Florida quarterback who couldn’t even throw as well as Alabama’s triggermen. And given what we saw for nearly the entire first half of this game, that’s saying something.

South Florida’s Byrum Brown managed to tally just 87 yards on 14-of-28 passing. It’s not often that a team gives a quarterback 28 passing opportunities while he’s in the process of amassing just 87 yards. It’s even rarer to see that same quarterback entrusted to run a pass play on 4th-and-long. It’s not very surprising, however, that it didn’t work.

South Florida was determined to be aggressive, but its aggressiveness bit the Bulls in the rump roast. Alabama held South Florida to a 2-of-6 performance on fourth downs, and if South Florida had been a bit more patient with its gameplan, it might have actually put itself in position to get the upset win. Instead, it allowed a very hamstrung Alabama team to escape Tampa with the kind of win that no one will ever make themed trinkets to commemorate.

South Florida isn’t expected to win more than three or four games total in 2023, and a loss here would have been one of the lowest points in modern Alabama football history. While Bama managed to escape such a fate, there are questions. So, so many questions.

What, for instance, has happened to Alabama’s offense? Why is the offensive line having such trouble keeping Bama’s quarterbacks protected? Where is the toughness, the identity that made recent Alabama teams great?

The defense certainly did its job by the numbers Saturday, but Byrum Brown’s competency as a quarterback was already under question. Alabama mostly allowed Brown to show what he really was as a passer, but Bama didn’t exactly control Brown as a runner.

Again, we can spend time breaking down this game, but the real work starts tomorrow in Tuscaloosa when the team gets back on the practice field for Ole Miss. The body of work that Alabama brought out of Tampa isn’t going to be good enough to beat anyone else on the schedule other than Chattanooga.

At least Alabama got some clarity on its quarterback battle. Tyler Buchner was given the start in this game and it will likely go down as his only start for the program. Ty Simpson didn’t set the world on fire in relief, but he earned another start – which he will probably get this week – and if anything should happen to Simpson going forward, or the job proves to be too big for him, Jalen Milroe should be the next man up. It’s also time to get Dylan Lonergan more meaningful snaps in practice. For now, though, Simpson is in the driver’s seat and should stay there unless he does something to get himself tossed out of it.

The rest of it, that’s where the season will really hinge. Alabama has won championships with average or even below-average quarterback play before, but not with poor line play or the lack of an edge.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-South Florida:

  1. Offensive line isn’t making progress in pass protection. Bama ran the ball better against South Florida but that’s not exactly a feat of strength. Bama was expected to be able to move the ball on the ground. What wasn’t expected was five sacks yielded and another five QB hurries piled on top of that. Alabama was without Tyler Booker for this game and his absence may have contributed to some of true freshman LT Kadyn Proctor’s struggles, but Proctor isn’t ready for this level of football just yet. It’s time to give Elijah Pritchett some work at that spot or consider flipping Proctor and RT J.C. Latham.
     
    For whatever reason, the accountability demanded of Alabama’s quarterbacks hasn’t filtered down to the offensive line yet. To be honest, it’s not like Latham played great in this game, either – he gave up a sack on a play where he was beat to the inside by a second-level rusher, a cardinal sin for offensive tackles – but something’s got to give on the left side. Or more appropriately, too many things have already “give” on the left side as it is. The holes are there in the running game, but that’s just half the game.
     
  2. Running backs put up a solid performance, but can they do it against bigger competition? Much of the talk after the game was how Roydell Williams may have moved ahead of Jase McClellan for the starting job, but that ignores two things: One, Alabama like two-RB rotations because it keeps the mileage off the starter, so whether McClellan starts or Williams starts doesn’t really matter; they’re both going to play a lot. Two, pull the Texas tape and watch how Williams struggled against a better rush defense than this one.
     
    That’s the operative question here – just how good are Alabama’s backs, anyway? They were certainly good enough to smoke South Florida; Williams carried 17 times for 129 yards and McClellan rushed 13 times for 74 yards. What about an SEC defense?

  3. Defensive line put up better numbers but still has a long road to travel. After basically ignoring Texas’ Quinn Ewers for three-plus hours last Saturday, Alabama at least got its stats in against South Florida. Alabama put up 5 sacks and a QB hurry, but the defensive line was mostly absent. Justin Eboigbe got a half-sack, sharing credit for a hit with Dallas Turner; the other 4.5 sacks came from the linebacker level. Alabama recorded 9.5 tackles for loss, but again, the defensive line contributed just 0.5 of that number.
     
    Alabama was without Jaheim Oatis for this game, which certainly affected things, and on the good side, Tim Smith up 9 tackles by himself, a rarity for a defensive lineman against any level of opponent. But Bama simply isn’t getting enough from this unit, especially in regard to pressure on the quarterback.

  4. One bright side for the 2023 defense: Takeaways are back. Alabama got a fumble recovery and an interception in this game, big plays at critical moments for a defense that didn’t make a lot of impact plays in 2022. If Bama is going to unabashedly win with defense (or at least try to) in 2023, it will need this in every game. Bama didn’t flip drives against Texas via the turnover route, so seeing it back on the menu for USF is nice indeed.

  5. Offense was effective in the red zone, but needs better QB play to get there more often. Alabama came into this game leading the nation in red zone offense despite the erratic play of QB Jalen Milroe, and it went 3-for-3 on red zone scoring opportunities in this game. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Alabama put up just 107 total yards through the air on 10-of-23 passing.
     
    As we mentioned above, Tyler Buchner simply didn’t show either the arm strength or the footwork necessary to quarterback this offense. Ty Simpson appears to have the physical tools to do it, so the question here is whether Simpson is going to be able to avoid the same kind of bad decisions that got Milroe benched in the first place.
     
    Alabama put up just 16 first downs in this game and 3 of those came by penalty. That’s the same number the passing game produced, and was one short of the 4 recorded by South Florida’s marginal passing attack. If we were picking the depth chart at this point, Simpson would get the start against Ole Miss with Milroe ready in case things went sideways early, and Dylan Lonergan would begin the grooming process to take over later in the year.
     
    Whatever Alabama decides to do, it can’t repeat this putrid performance. Simpson should get credit for leading two touchdown drives and playing within himself. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, more is needed.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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