Saturday night wasn't a perfect one for the Alabama Crimson Tide, but it was one of those nights that remind you why Nick Saban and company often receive the benefit of the doubt at every level. From when they take a chance on a late three-star prospect like Joshua Jacobs or Eddie Jackson to holding a preseason No. 1 ranking despite starting a true freshman quarterback to their former players having that much more value when it comes to the NFL Draft.
'Bama is seemingly bigger, badder and just plain better than just about anybody who lines up against them, even a team carrying that type of reputation with its head coach and style of play like Arkansas does. UA beat UA 49-30 but the game never really seemed that close.
Let's take a deeper look.
Lane Train Rollin'
We're going to take a deep look at the offensive success but no point paints the picture from Saturday night better than this: Alabama had 42 points next to its name when it suffered its first three-and-out on offense. Yes, you read that right. The team moved the ball basically at will, only stopping itself with seemingly random turnovers. The first drive of the game was a microcosm of this, as Jacobs' big run down inside the 5 was followed by a fumble. Running lanes were readily available inside, outside and all areas in between.
The first offensive play had to have made some Crimson Tide faithful laugh a little. A few minutes before kick, I was surfing Twitter to see scores and stats and big plays, etc. when I came across a fan poll asking whether Lane Kiffin would call "jet sweep" left or right as the first UA play. There weren't any other options, which of course is hilarious. And sure enough, while it wasn't technically a handoff, the touch-pass to Calvin Ridley featured the jet-sweep cross motion that reminds UA fans that the offense is now a spread look before it challenges the defensive contain over the next few seconds. Ridley gained about 9 yards on the play and the Tide was off to the races. But, as we again want to stress, that is all by design. Alabama wants to loosen up that front-seven in order to free up running lanes later on. Five plays later, Jacobs got the rock over the right side in what had to be the biggest hole of the year en route to his 56-yard tote. What happened right before the snap? Robert Foster coming across the formation in that same cross-motion that makes so many onlookers groan. The flow caused the strongside linebacker to vacate the space where the run was designed to hit, and it did. There's a method to Kiffin's madness, y'all.
The first drive, save for the fumble, was a preview of what the day would be like for Kiffin and the offense. Timely play-action, screens, the occasional down-field shot (still Hurts' only glaring weakness) and some if-it-aint-broke-don't-fix-it running calls made this one easy for the offensive coordinator. Hurts had as many total touchdowns as incompletions (four), the runners averaged nearly 8 yards per carry and in the process he got recently-injured standouts Damien Harris (182 total yards) and Ardarius Stewart (120 receiving yards) back into the mix in a big way. We even saw his patented hands in the air well before the touchdown is made on the rub route that made Ridley's late touchdown grab look like the Tide was facing Arkansas Tech instead of the Hogs.
Kiffin has been hot the last few years and there's little signs of cooling off. His December and January will be incredibly busy with interviews for other gigs while game-planning for perhaps his last game or two on this staff.
Turnovers Defining Tide D
At times, the defense had the same night Kiffin did. They made huge chunk-plays, never yielded momentum and physically imposed their will whenever they wanted. Though there were some lapses (more on that later), the unit bruised and battered Arkansas QB Austin Allen all night long. Credit him for getting back up and throwing the ball well despite the pounding, but much of it was too little, too late. This was Jeremy Pruitt in attack mode like we haven't yet seen in in 2016. The blizting, combined with UA's front-four being way too much for the Hog offensive line resulted in seven sacks, two defensive scores and pressure on Allen near 70 percent of his 48 pass attempts. I know most don't keep track of those numbers like offensive stats, but anything better than pressure a third of the time (33%) is staggering. UA doubled that.
Pruitt did it with linebackers, creating two scenarios. It means there wasn't going to be much time for the legacy QB but it also meant the secondary was going to be ripe for the picking should the Arky wideouts win one-on-one battles. So you saw a bit of both but the constant was the pressure. No matter where the ball was on the field, no matter the down, no matter UA's personnel -- they were coming. Versatile linebackers can enable this and UA has long known it had that in senior Reuben Foster, but how about Shaun Hamilton continuing to progress and show his full aresonal? He was used just as much as Foster and reserve Rashaan Evans en route to the quarterback. And measuring the success of a blitz has little to do with the player who gets the sack or late pressure or even corresponding turnover. It's about adjusting the comfort of the passer, making him drop futher back than he wants to, step up before he's ready to and escape the pocket when he doesn't want to. The 'backers and their pressure did that and they even combined for 1.5 sacks themselves.
But the aggression wasn't limited to the second-level. The defensive line, from big guys like Daron Payne to the explosive edge talents like Tim Williams also had their fair share of stunts. Williams' first play featured a twist inside to rush a throw, a Payne stunt did the same later on while other twists and delays helped create true turnovers from Da'Shawn Hand and helped stop runs before they got going. The last point is another reason to be aggressive, eliminating the Arkansas ground attack and making the unit one dimensional. It worked and the entire country knew Allen would have to beat 'Bama with his arm, from behind, something no arm in America could quite be ready for. Pruitt was beaten by his own methods at times, as several pass-catchers made plays for the home team, but the initial punch -- just like the offense -- made it too big to come back from. Nick Saban may disagree, but the scheme and situation allowed for Arkansas to score points if the QB was tough and the receivers were ready. They were, so they did.
Before we dig into some negatives with the UA DBs out on an island, immense praise is due for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Sure, he had three interceptions, but that was just a part of what he did well on a completely dominant night. The first time he flashed was against the run, as the Hogs tried to get to the edge on UA via a bubble screen, and Fitzpatrick was the lone defender on the outside for UA. It was the right call and read by Allen, who had a two-to-one advantage. Should Fitzpatrick have been blocked, the play would have gone for an easy first down. Instead, the sophomore drove the wide receiver back and disrupted the timing of the play, slowing the advancement of the football in what ended up being a minimal gain. Fitzpatrick has always played the run well and it seemingly got him going Saturday, where he was easily the most efficient secondary-man the Tide had on its side. Three interceptions later, including one returned 100 yards to the house, and he was rightfully given the Walter Camp Player of the Week award.
The first of the three picks, in addition to his multiple deflections and handful of tackles, was the most impressive of the big plays in my opinion. While it didn't result in direct points like the last one, which will be among the easiest INTs of his career since Allen threw a desperation heave off of his back foot into triple coverage, it not only provided momentum but gave Alabama a short field. Fitzpatrick read his route, as he was again alone in man coverage, but used the sidelines as another defender, stacked the wide receiver and was in such good position he could turn his head and make a tough over-the-shoulder catch as if he was the intended receiver. Ridley scored an easy touchdown just four plays later to put the road team up 42-17. The pick six later on would be No. 1's final score so essentially Fitzpatrick set up the final 14 points in a 19-point win.
While Fitzpatrick was a star against both the run and especially the pass, as he could have probably reeled in at least one more interception, the rest of the starting DB group left plenty to be desired. The most consistent cornerback in 2016, Marlon Humphrey, didn't make an earth-shattering mistake and he as per usual was in great position, but at the very end of plays he didn't close the deal. Football is a game of inches and one could use Humphrey's game to teach a young defensive back on many fronts. Technique-wise, you would love the countless examples the redshirt sophomore exhibited while playing a ton of man coverage as the result of Pruitt's aggression and increased blitz rate. Humphrey was physical, he played with great leverage and he got his head turned more times than not when the ball was on the way. But one could also teach a lack of ball skills, because at the end of these plays Humphrey was just a bit off. Keon Hatcher made one heck of a play to beat him for one of his two scores, but some of the other grabs against him weren't as spectacular. That wasn't the Humphrey who has sky-rocketed up NFL Draft boards. He of course was also a bit too physical late in routes and was flagged for it in addition to abandoning his zone principles on two of the few times UA was able to settle in a non-man coverage.
Before it seems like I'm ripping the unit, which admittedly didn't play their best, I want to re-emphasize how the Alabama game plan was going to put a lot of pressure on the group either way. As we detailed with Pruitt blitzing so much, it limited the defenses ability to play more zone coverage, which was going to create considerable one-on-one situations not only for the cornerbacks, who are more used to it, but for the safety group as well. Fitzpatrick and Anthony Averett were rock solid despite these facts.
That takes us to the safeties, who showed more of what we had seen earlier in the year and surprised us at the same time. The surprise was Eddie Jackson, who had his worst game of 2016 from what I can tell. He was in on a few tackles but his usual strength -- pass coverage -- was a weakness. He was out of position, took tough angles and somehow didn't play much of a factor in a game where the unit would be stressed and an opponent threw for 400 yards despite being beat up all night long. While most of Jackson's shortcummings weren't very visible, the same cannot be said for Ronnie Harrison. The sophomore safety, who has had some big-time turnovers to his name for the defense this year, has gone through a rough stretch to the point teams are going to continue targeting him whenever he can be isolated against a wide receiver or even a tight end. The Jeremy Sprinkle score wasn't on him, as Ryan Anderson got lost in man coverage, but Harrison was beat for several first downs and was out of position at least five times in coverage that we charted. For the second-straight week, he had a tough night in man coverage, not using his physicality to re-route the opponent, enabling a free release and easy reads for non All-SEC QBs. Hatcher's second score was a great throw-and-catch, but Allen appeared to see Harrison's drop and have considerable confidence that he wouldn't be able to get deep enough to affect the ball's path. He was right. Harrison is a rock solid player who is physical against the run, and he had some big pops in this game as well, but he is simply a liabliity in coverage right now compared to the rest of the starting unit. The good news for UA is that there isn't a great passer on the schedule until perhaps the Iron Bowl and the effieicient Sean White.
*While Kiffn's play-calling was great, every level of the offense executed, especially the wide receivers/tight ends. They ran great routes, didn't drop any passes and all, but even more impressive was their blocking. Dieter has become a scrappy blocker and it's becoming a team strength with guys like Stewart and Howard already well-established in that area. Big runs involve the O-line creating one hole, the runner making one man miss and the pass-catchers grabbing a block. We saw a lot of this Saturday and it's gotta be terrifying for opponents. Remember when the running game looked like a weakness?
*What a difference in watching UA on passing downs vs. Arkansas this week. Allen, to his credit, pushed through some unimaginable pressure all night long while Hurts had a clean pocket more than 90 percent of the time. Arkansas didn't have one sack on this day. The O-line is humming on all cylinders right now.
*One issue on the offense, maybe the only one Saturday, seems to be holding onto the ball. Jacobs and Stewart lost fumbles and Harris had one near the goalline as well. Conversely, we've seen UA attack the ball in all phases, including a great strip by Hootie Jones on a kickoff, followed by a Mack Wilson recovery. It helped UA jump out to that huge lead.
*The D-line depth has been a worry among UA recruiting fans but we saw a slight glimpse at what 2017 could look like. Payne was incredible against both the run and the pass, Josh Frazier played earlier than we can ever remember, Hand made some impact plays against both the run and the pass (could he bolt early for the NFL if he continues to flash?) and Terrell Hall reminded us why he had some nice buzz in camp. This is without guys like Jamar King, Raekwon Davis and Quinnen Williams seeing the field. I think the group, regardless of how many UA brings in this upcoming class, will be a bit more concrete than many realize.
*Rashaan Evans, wow. We have reported how freakish this kid is since his junior year of high school but he is simply at another gear than his teammates. When he can see-ball, get-ball, I can't imagine many more explosive players. He can rush the passer, play sideline-to-slideline and is plenty athletic enough to drop in pass coverage. Should Foster need more time to recover from the concussion he suffered, more of Evans on the field shouldn't hurt the defense very much if at all despite Foster's excellent 2016.