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Texas A&M wrap-up: Alabama wins the way it was told it could not

Probably by Tuesday or Wednesday of this week, everyone was sick of it.

Sick of hearing how the Texas A&M Aggies had the best defensive line in the country. Impenetrable, even.

Quarterback Jalen Milroe had probably heard Alabama couldn’t win if he had to throw them to victory. The receivers had heard that they just weren’t very good at catching footballs. Win via the running game, or not at all.

Sweet, sweet redemption.

Texas A&M’s defensive line didn’t forget to show up, that’s for sure. Alabama’s running game did nothing, all day. The Bama offensive line – especially in the first half – couldn’t consistently protect Jalen Milroe. Milroe was sacked 6 times and finished the day with minus-31 rushing yards, one of the few times you’ll see him in the red in that category at the end of the day. Roydell Williams was neutralized, and Jase McClellan had a fairly nondescript day running the ball – but he’ll be remembered for ages thanks to his third-down catch that eventually iced the win.

In the end, Milroe – along with wide receivers Jermaine Burton and Isaiah Bond – made the game about something other than the stellar A&M defensive front. Milroe was 21-of-33 for 321 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. He made the right reads most of the day and completed tough passes down the field, especially when throwing Burton’s way. The few he missed didn’t wind up hurting Alabama much. Even the interception was the right read; it was just thrown without zip because Milroe probably underestimated how fast the safety could close on the ball.

But it wasn’t just Milroe and a pack of wide receivers delivering the victory. The Alabama defense played perhaps its best game in more than a year. The defensive line certainly overachieved, and now that we have half a season wrapped up, it’s time to start gauging trends.

One of those trends, the biggest of them all, is that Alabama is improving each week. Given that a lot of the improvement is represented by its quarterback and defensive line, it bodes well for Alabama to continue its march to Atlanta and possibly beyond.

Nick Saban hinted strongly at this, if not promised it, when he brought in Tommy Rees and Kevin Steele as coordinators. Alabama would have to get tougher, more disciplined. Against Texas A&M, the toughness was there; the discipline … well, that’s a work in progress. Alabama got flagged for 14 total penalties, 9 of them pre-snap. It took a touchdown off the board by getting flagged for a blindside block that, while questionable, still should never have been made 20 yards behind the play. And then there was Milroe, inexplicably throwing on first down with less than two minutes to play, a decision that almost put the ball back in Texas A&M’s hands at the end.

But for a game like this, that meant what it did both at this point in the season and for this team’s psyche overall, you can either focus on the things that didn’t go right, or celebrate the things that did. Alabama showed incredible heart to keep getting up off the canvas and respond when being challenged.

Even the small things, like Jaeden Roberts stepping in as an unexpected starter at right guard in place of an injured Darrian Dalcourt, need to be mentioned. Will Reichard filling in for an injured James Burnip and averaging more than 41 yards per punt with no returns. Trey Amos coming into the game and Terrion Arnold switching on the fly to replace an injured Malachi Moore.

This wasn’t the most dominating win in Alabama history by a long shot, but it was one of the more satisfying in recent years. It was a message for those that do not believe: Don’t give up on this team just yet.

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

1. The play of the game may very well have been Caleb Downs’ interception. Coming on the heels of Jalen Milroe’s lone interception, Alabama seemed destined to be on the cusp of letting the game get away from them. Alabama was trailing 17-10 at that point in time, and Texas A&M was in business at the Bama 37. But true freshman safety Caleb Downs stepped in front of a pass from Max Johnson – a play set up by interior pressure that we’ll address in point No. 2 – and flipped the field right back to the Crimson Tide. Six plays later, Milroe would hit Jermaine Burton for a 15-yard touchdown pass to tie it up.

The effect on the Aggies was palpable, as from that point forward, Alabama took the position of having near-complete control of the flow of the game. It was nice justification for Downs, too, who was one of the players that had the most trouble with Texas’ complicated offense earlier in the year. Downs probably wasn’t ready then, and is still learning on the job, but he showed the kind of talent today that justified Nick Saban taking a chance on having a true freshman starter in the middle of his secondary.

2. DL and OLB played their best game of the year and shut the game down at key points. Justin Eboigbe had his best game since coming back from a career-threatening neck injury, and Tim Smith and Tim Keenan both made game-changing plays. Alabama got good rotational work from Jaheim Oatis and Jah-Marien Latham, as well. The Texas A&M offensive line’s own internal struggles probably had something to do with it – we did not foresee the Aggies having quite the level of problems they displayed in this game, and it appears to be squarely a talent issue for them – but give credit to Alabama for generating the kind of interior pressure it needed to have to get Max Johnson off his game.

Alabama’s defensive front generated 5 sacks, 6 tackles for loss and 7 QB hurries. No player had more than 1 hurry each. Outside linebackers Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell were effective at both getting to Johnson and forcing running plays inside, where Keenan (8 tackles from the nose) and company could shut it down. It’s an old refrain, but … if Alabama keeps playing like this up front all year long, there aren’t a lot of teams that are going to want to face this defense.

3. Jalen Milroe had to have a game like this. Now, what’s next in his development? At this point there probably aren’t a lot of definitive statements that could be made about Milroe’s ability or development. He’s clearly got deep-throw arm talent, he can run like few other quarterbacks can, and this is the third week in a row he’s been able to slow the mental side of the game down for himself after halftime and focus on doing the things necessary to notch a win. But he also makes errors like the lack of zip on the pass to Amari Niblack that was intercepted, or the late gaffe on first down that could have turned into something bigger.

However, the pluses seem to outweigh the minuses and if Milroe can continue to correct a few small things every week, by the end of the year he has the potential to be a threat. Milroe threw away a few passes today while escaping the rush – that by itself is evidence of improvement. He’s more than earned the right to continue to improve while being on the field, and Alabama doesn’t win the game today if Milroe had been anything less than what he was.

4. Burton and Bond are becoming a handful at wide receiver, and Niblack at TE. Isaiah Bond was always going to be the guy that would either develop and make this unit better, or continue to drop passes and only find himself used in spots. This game wasn’t necessarily a coming-out party for him and Burton, but it did go a long way to establishing Alabama as having two quality receivers who can pressure defenses on the outside.

Bond’s pure speed makes him hard to handle, but Burton put on a route-running clinic in this game that Texas A&M CB Josh DeBerry won’t soon forget. Tight end Amari Niblack is also a mismatch waiting to happen, and once Alabama’s offensive line gets to the point where it doesn’t have to keep the tight ends to block for the quarterback so much, look for Niblack’s stat sheet to explode.

Alabama still would like to get a third receiver into the mix, and Malik Benson is probably the closest to doing it – sidebar: What has happened to Ja’Corey Brooks? – but defensive coordinators are going to be poring over footage of this game and trying to figure out how to keep their corners out of having a diaster.

5. One of the hallmarks of a Nick Saban Alabama team is its halftime adjustments. Bama won big today. There is also another trend developing, that of second-half adjustments. With the lone exception of the Texas game, Alabama has clearly won halftime. Whatever Alabama did at halftime today, regarding both sides of the ball, certainly worked better than what Jimbo Fisher and his staff came up with. The amount of improvement just in the protection schemes of the Bama OL alone was surreal to see. Alabama isn’t wowing anyone with its statistics this year, especially on offense, but stats don’t win games, plays and players do.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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