The Alabama Crimson Tide hosted a lesser opponent at home for the second straight week but it was still an SEC game for the program with Kentucky in town. There was again a slow start and again the defense picked up the slack.
Jalen Hurts and the UA offense got going and the score ended up being much closer to what many thought would be the result in a 34-6 Tide triumph. They can't all be pretty when a team with a target on its back hasn't lost in more than a calendar year (Ole Miss, Sept. 2015) and it will be noted as the champs prepare for the gauntlet ahead on the road at Arkansas and Tennessee before hosting TAMU the next three weeks.
Slow out of the Gates
"The little things" are something every coach in any sport focuses on and UA's players will have to hear something similar from Nick Saban this week. It began on the team's first drive, which rolled into UK territory somewhat easily. The early emphasis was an aggressive one from Lane Kiffin, focusing on the passing game and it got the team into the scoring area quickly. A third down play was stopped short and it surprised nobody to see the offense remain on the field. Then a Jonah Williams false start backed UA up. It still went for it and Hurts found a wide open Cameron Sims well beyond the sticks, but he couldn't come up with it. Turnover on downs.
Alabama's defense than gave up 36 yards to the Wildcats, enough to put them in field goal range. It connected and UA was again down early.
But again, it would respond and begin dominating from that point. The defense didn't allow another point until the fourth quarter and it again found the end zone on a strip by Rashaan Evans, returned to the house by safety Ronnie Harrison.
The offense, too, settled, using Joshua Jacobs on the ground efficiently with Damien Harris in a limited role to compliment Calvin Ridley, who saw plays down the field, hand-offs, short passes and everything in between during a dominant 180 total yard (174 receiving) day that included a pair of touchdowns. This team seemingly needs to get into a collective rhythm on both sides of the football, something that will need to change against stiffer competition.
Jacobs Shoulders Load...For Now
We're approaching the time of year where we really learn a lot about teams we cover and while we were perhaps wrong around the notion of the wide receiver group being the team's biggest strength (it would have to default to the defensive line or linebacker at this point) we were also inaccurate in looking at the running back scenario as a whole. Few expected Jacobs to be this reliable, this elusive, this early, while Emmons and Scarbrough remain in the mix for supplementary carries with Harris still seemingly banged up. We knew there wouldn't be just "one guy" or that workhorse back, but this collective of talented runners continues to yield great results as the offensive line continues to look more settled (Did you see Cameron Robinson dominate? Wow!).
But as we've stressed in week's past, Jacobs is seeing the lion's share of carries right now because of his ability to make men miss. All four backs have power, all four backs have above-average vision and all four can catch the football, but there's now little doubt as to which one will get by the first, second and sometimes third or fourth threat in space -- it's Jacobs. He can evade from a stationary position as well as while heading north-south on runs or passes, in traffic or in the open field. It's one heck of a weapon defenses will have to pay more attention to. And that's the key. The more defenses move in the direction they did a year ago in defending UA, the more it will open up for one area Hurts has struggled with accuracy -- down the football field. Couple it with the likely return of Ardarius Stewart, a now-healthy Robert Foster as well as Ridley, Dieter, Howard, Sims and playing-a-lot-more-on-offense frosh Trevon Diggs and the unit could live up to overall expectations.
Even before thinking of that optimistic scenario, picture Alabama being able to roll in four different backs who have now each carried the ball at least 23 times and played big-time minutes in first and fourth quarters alike. That's new. That's different. At some point, that's going to be necessary for a win with the defenses the Tide is about to face.
Stressing the Edge
On both sides of the ball Alabama has stressed the edge well thus far in 2016. Of course it's easier to see on offense (cue the angry fan complaining about jet-sweeps) and there is a reason why. UA has speed, skill and function on the edge like never before and it is just one of the spread offensive principles onlookers will need to get used to. 'Bama has been a bit more balanced in the under center/shotgun discussion in recent games but the edge principles have been utilized the same way. Ridley, Sims, Diggs and Howard had 'test the edge' plays in this one and it is actually working. Sure, those plays haven't yielded a ton of yardage but once again it creates lateral movement from the opposing front-seven, allowing for the quick hitters with the backs and Hurts in the read-option element.
We also see UA attacking from a one-back set, similar to the pistol formation, at times and it did so effectively on seven straight running plays during UA's first offensive touchdown of the game. Harris had the first tote and Jacobs the next six. It's like pounding the running game in between the tackles in order to open the play-action passing game up. Same concept, just different look.
Defensively, Alabama has set the edge well. Allen is playing like the best defensive lineman in America but he's getting a ton of help on the other side whether it be Tomlinson, Hand or the outside linebackers like Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and even some younger players like Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller on Saturday. Just like the edge needs to be tested with some success to open up the defense, shutting it down will shrink the playbook and create longer down-and-distance scenarios. We know how UA has been since last year in obvious passing sitiations and the edge prescence has been a big reason why those future NFLers have been able to feast on QBs.
Williams Waits, then Erupts
Speaking of Williams, hungry was an understatement once he came into the game on the second drive of the third quarter. His first snap, of course it was on a third down, yielded a QB pressure. Many of his next ones did as well and he did it with speed, power and a combination of both depending on his angle to the backfield. He impacted the game and disrupted so much that he still was recognized by the staff Monday for his performance. That's insane to comprehend in a game where the Alabama was defense 99 percent of the time.
We waited for Tony Brown to be the spark for the team with his suspension fully served and while he played and was easy to point out, it was Williams who ended up increasing everybody's energy level once inserted into the game. He and Anderson, who is now a no-brainer NFL guy, off of opposite edges on a passing down continues to be no contest. It's like more money flows into their future pockets each Saturday.
* Harrison is going to continue to be targeted in pass coverage. If he is in man coverage, he is easily the starter who opposing passers will want to identify to attack because of his lack of polish. Not only is he so aggressive that he has missed multiple assignments on run fakes, which happened again Saturday in what would have been a big play if not for Tomlinson knocking the pass attempt down, but he gave away his leverage on an early third down that gave UK confidence on its drive to take the early lead. Hogs use their tight end well, so let's see the adjustment.
* We mentioned it above, but Robinson had his best game of the season against UK. We feel he's always been a good pass blocker and he again was, but he was physically dominant at times on running plays this time around. He is such a great athlete that it was only a matter of time.
* Hurts looked like his usual self and he was again aggressive down the field. I don't know why he hasn't been accurate deep but this offense will continue to allow him to test it out. As you know, it's still the only major hole I see in his game on a consistent basis.
* It looks like Xavian Marks is the full-time punt and kick return specialist now. He is quick, he is fast and he's a guy who the team loves to see succeed. His late 15-yard return, where it looked like he was about to get decked before reversing field, was simply masterful.