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Ole Miss wrap-up: Tide pens masterpiece on the strength of second act

If you want to know what “joyless murderball” looks like, the Alabama Crimson Tide produced a half-hour documentary Saturday afternoon, and Ole Miss should win an Oscar for Best Actors in a Supporting Role.

Alabama outscored Ole Miss 18-3 in the second half on its way to winning 24-10. It was a game that felt disastrous at times from an Alabama perspective in the first half, yet ended up possibly kickstarting a Tuscaloosa renaissance of doomhammers and other methods of mass enfeeblement. This is the way Alabama used to beat teams, and it’s the way Nick Saban wants to get back to winning games before his career ends, whenever that happens to be.

For all Saban’s talk about explosive plays and balance, he seems his happiest when he has a team capable of roughing up the opposition. Saban may be the architect of modern college football defense, but he not-so-secretly prefers neanderthal application of those principles. He is less “Shakespeare In Love,” and far more “Roadhouse” in his outlook.

He got every chance possible Saturday to prove he could still win games in such fashion, because Alabama spent the second quarter giving Ole Miss every extra chance at an upset that it could muster. A sequence of plays that began with Ja’Corey Brooks blocking an Ole Miss punt, getting a 1st-and-goal from inside the 2-yard line, and ending up needing a midrange field goal to put points on the board – and not retake the lead in the process – is the kind of ineptitude that gets coaches thrown into impromptu performance review meetings with their athletic director on the tarmac of the airport, something Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin is quite familiar with. Nick Saban was in no danger of enduring Kiffin’s USC fate, but plenty of Alabama fans were wondering whether offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was going to be allowed access to the press box elevator after halftime.

If anyone was wondering at that point whether Nick Saban was running out of tricks, the slate of halftime adjustments Alabama came up with in 20 minutes should have set the record straight once and for all. Saban and the Alabama staff, especially the defensive staff, coached circles around Lane Kiffin and his offensive assistants. It wasn’t just the defense, though: A long pass from Jalen Milroe to Jermaine Burton got Milroe’s confidence going, and multiple observers commented on how Milroe’s on-field demeanor seemed to improve as the game went along.

We talked in the preview of this game about how, one way or another, this game was going to serve as a signpost for the 2023 season. Lose here, and Alabama would be in danger of being pointed down a dark path. Win the game, though, and everything Alabama wants to play for at the end of the season would still be very much in play.

It isn’t clear yet whether Alabama can take this act – call it the “Joyless Murderball Revue” if you wish – on the road, and still win games. Championship teams really haven’t won with defense in some time. However, what other team out there is clearly dominating the competition at this point? There are some very good teams in college football, but just about every contender has a hole somewhere, or in the case of a team like Washington, they haven’t been tested yet. Alabama is right there with the other teams with holes, as the first half of today’s game would attest, but Alabama grew up a bit this day. If it can continue to improve in a handful of critical spots, it could very well again become the team that other teams don’t want to play.

It’s been awhile since Alabama rode a stifling defense to a big intraconference win. It’s an event worth celebrating – and, just as Hollywood does on a regular basis, creating an endless number of sequels.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ole Miss:

1. If you want to focus on just one area, take a lot at the defensive pressure metrics in this game compared to the Texas loss. Against Texas, NT Tim Keenan had 1 QB hurry, which happened to be the only one recorded, and no one got a sack. Against Ole Miss, the Bama defense hurried Rebel QB Jaxson Dart a total of 8 times and sacked him 5 times. In addition, Alabama hit Dart hard on several plays in which he either dropped back to pass or after he had taken off scrambling. Twice Dart was knocked from the game when his helmet came off. And Tim Keenan? He had 3 QB hurries by himself in this game, a rarity for an Alabama nosetackle due to the significant amount of personnel rotation Alabama employs at and through that particular spot. Keenan was originally supposed to be a Josh Chapman type, a sawed-off, fireplug body type who could clog the middle. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Keenan has some real pass rush ability and can frustrate centers and guards who attempt to stop him. In addition to Keenan, Alabama got a second solid game in a row from DL Tim Smith, and if Smith’s light is finally coming on after so many years, opponents need to watch out. Smith recorded 3 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Alabama also got a strong performance from reserve inside linebackers Jihaad Campbell and Kendrick Blackshire, who were forced into the game when Deontae Lawson was injuried.

2. Jalen Milroe grew up a bit at quarterback, but it’s a race against time to make him a championship-caliber QB before year’s end. Milroe’s day was certainly not without its rough spots. The interception he threw in the end zone in the first half could have been a backbreaker had Alabama’s defense not gone on to nuke the Rebel offense. The long completion to Jermaine Burton would likely have gone for a touchdown had Milroe thrown it over the correct shoulder. There were a handful of other missed reads … but there was also a lot of improvement here, just within the same game. Milroe’s first half looked like the second half of the Texas game, but as the defense toughened after halftime and Alabama was able to find some success pounding on the Ole Miss defensive front, Milroe loosened up a bit and the game slowed down a little for him. Alabama isn’t going to win any hardware this year if it has to win in spite of Milroe, so his continued development is crucial. On the interception, for instance, he had Burton open short of the goal line, but chose to go to Ja’Corey Brooks deeper in the pattern and that throw was too reminiscent of the interceptions against Texas. Having said that, the touchdown pass to Jalen Hale in the face of a blitz was a beautiful read and good execution. Milroe ended up outplaying Dart by virtually every statistical measure: Alabama averaged more yards per attempt and per completion, Milroe threw a touchdown pass (Dart did not), and Milroe had a superior completion percentage and also rushed for more yards. Dart finished the game with 20 more yards than Milroe; other than that, it was a statistical skunking.

3. OL was able to wear down Ole Miss DL, and the running game was improved … to a point. In our preview, we profiled the two OL-DL cross-matchups as being an edge to both teams’ defensive lines over the other teams’ offensive lines. Alabama was able to flip the script in the second half, and it allowed the Crimson Tide to pull away in this game. Ole Miss’ defensive line was on the smaller side and in general, Alabama’s superior size made a difference. Jalen Milroe was still sacked 4 times, but two of those sacks were probably on Milroe for refusing to throw the ball away. He was hurried only 1 time in addition to the sacks. Tackles for loss were more problematic; Alabama’s OL allowed 9 of them, which contributed heavily to Alabama recording a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. The problem for Ole Miss was it couldn’t get off the field; even though Alabama averaged just 2.9 yards per carry, the Crimson Tide had 45 rushing attempts to just 29 for the Rebels. Those extra carries mattered, not just from the production aspect but also because it allowed the Tide OL to beat on the Rebel DL some more. Furthermore, Jase McClellan was tackled for a loss only once, for 1 yard, and finished the day with a net 105 yards on 17 carries and scored the game-clenching touchdown. The Rebels were able to neutralize Roydell Williams (21 yards on 8 carries, a 2.6-yard average), but with McClellan running at will, it didn’t matter. Alabama still needs to cut down the negative plays, and Ole Miss did a good job containing Jalen Milroe as a runner even though there were more dedicated run plays called for Milroe today than in the past.

4. Special teams weren’t perfect but Alabama was able to realize its advantage there. We profiled a big edge here for Alabama and the game played out just as we called it. Ole Miss’ punting has been dreadful in 2023 and Alabama was able to get to Fraser Masin for a blocked punt in the second quarter. Placekicker Caden Davis also missed an easy field goal just before the end of the first half. It would have been nice if Will Reichard hadn’t kicked a pair of kickoffs out of bounds, and then there was the matter of Jamarion Miller getting hit with a targeting call on kickoff coverage, but Bama was able to minimize the damage from each of those errors. Reichard more than made up for those gaffes by hitting three clutch field goals, and punter James Burnip continues to have a pro-level junior season.

5. The playcalling was spotty and somewhat inconsistent. We can’t let everything be days of wine and roses here. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees did a good job putting together a wider range of called runs for Jalen Milroe, but he seemed to abandon that tact starting in the middle of the second quarter and going forward. Rees had the good fortune of having Milroe grow up a bit overall in the second half, especially in regard to making better reads. We still need to see more called run packages for Milroe, because if done correctly, it will get safeties playing closer to the line of scrimmage and open up some of the intermediate routes, which is Milroe’s struggle point. The worst sequence of the day by far was the “drive” following the blocked punt, where Alabama went from having 1st-and-goal from the 1 to having to kick a midrange field goal. The first-down play saw C Seth McLaughlin air-mail a shotgun snap to Milroe – and Bama should never have been in the shotgun there to begin with. Alabama’s offensive line has been consistently good on sneaks and ultra-short-yardage plays this season already when the quarterback is under center. The second half of that sentence is the important part. Alabama should have run three sneaks with Milroe getting a direct snap and if the Crimson Tide still wasn’t in the end zone at that point, consider trying once again on fourth down. Ole Miss was deflated after the blocked punt and was expecting to give up a touchdown, but Rees got cute and it cost Bama. Like the kickoffs out-of-bounds, Alabama was able to prevail despite the errors, but the better option here is to not commit the errors in the first place.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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