After two weeks of not playing up to its standard, Alabama came out on a crisp Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa and gobbled up its cupcake opponent Western Carolina, 49-0.
The Catamounts (1-10, 0-8 Southern Conference) may have had just one win heading into this game (their season opener against Mars Hill), but the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (10-1, 6-1 SEC) took the field ready to roll after losing their first game of the season last week to Texas A&M at home.
"It's very important to get a W and get back on the right track," said defensive end Damion Square. "That one last week hurt us, but you gotta put it in the past and move forward. And we did that."
After being held scoreless in the first 15 minutes the last two games against LSU and Texas A&M, Alabama exploded for 21 points in the first quarter, had 42 by halftime, and finished with 49. The offense looked like its old self—even though it was playing against an FCS defense—with the linemen drowning a puny defensive front while the running backs steamrolled through it, amassing 300 yards rushing.
Stellar two-minute drill against LSU aside, A.J. McCarron was average at best the past couple weeks. But the Alabama quarterback came out hot against WCU, hitting Amari Cooper for 14- and 34-yard passes on the first series, which ultimately ended with a seven-yard touchdown rush by Eddie Lacy to put the Tide on the board less than three minutes in.
The rest of the half was more of the same. McCarron, who only played a quarter-and-a-half before being replaced by Blake Sims, went a perfect 6-of-6 for 133 yards and a touchdown. His sole touchdown, a 29-yarder to Christion Jones in the second quarter, was his 21st of the season and put him in sole possession of Alabama's single-season touchdown record, surpassing Greg McElroy (20 in 2010).
In the first quarter, Alabama only needed 13 plays to churn out 168 yards and three touchdowns. At halftime, it had scored 42 points on just 28 plays. By game's end, the Crimson Tide had out-gained Western Carolina 460-163 and shutout their third opponent this year.
"They were a little bit outmanned," said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. "But our guys played the way we wanted to. We improved."
Sims, who came out of the tunnel in pregame pumped up and throwing fake punches like Rocky Balboa, took over for McCarron with 6:49 remaining in the second quarter. In his first series, with the rest of the first-team offense still in, he orchestrated a scoring drive that ended in Lacy's third touchdown of the day.
After only scoring one third quarter touchdown in the past seven games, Alabama began the second half with a 61-yard scoring drive engineered by Sims, who ran for 47 of those yards plus a touchdown. His final stat line included 27 yards passing and 70 rushing.
"He's a different type of quarterback and he played to his strengths and took care of the football," McCarron said of his backup.
Added center Barrett Jones: "It was fun [to play with Sims]. It's nice having a quarterback who's a little mobile to kind of mix things up a little bit."
This game was not about overcoming adversity, but rather a day of active recovery, a chance for the players to get their legs back.
Asked how tough the past four weeks had been—playing rivaled Tennessee on the road then three Top 15 opponents (Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M) in consecutive weeks—Square was frank and didn't make excuses.
"It's SEC football, that's what we're here to do," he said. "You come to Alabama to play stretches like that, so we can't complain about how tough those teams were to play week in and week out, you just gotta go and perform."
So did a game like this come at the right time?
"It was a W," Square said. "Any W comes at the right time."
This game was also a chance for second- and third-string players to get on the field. Aside from Sims, several backups who stood out were true freshmen cornerback Geno Smith (one tackle, one pass break-up), who got his first career start for an injured John Fulton (turf toe), safety Landon Collins (two tackles) and redshirt freshman running back Brent Calloway (52 yards on seven carries).
Saban said after the game he was pleased with the depth he saw from his defensive and offensive lines as well.
"We were trying to get as many guys in the game as we possibly could," he said. "I thought our second defense played a little better today. There have been times they get in and make mental error after mental error, but I thought there was some maturity out of some backup players. They played with a lot more poise, which is something we haven't been able to get out of them.
"Our second offensive line made a good bit of improvement and did a good job today, too."
With one week to go in the regular season, Alabama has its 24-hour rule and then starts preparing for its annual showdown against in-state rival Auburn. A win and the Tide clench the SEC West and a trip to the conference championship game in Atlanta.
"Everybody understands what's at hand," Square said. "Those guys [at Auburn], whatever they're going through down there, are going to put up a good fight against us and we're going to come out and play Alabama football."
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