Our readership on BamaMag is of course mostly Alabama Crimson Tide fans. Diehards more times than not. But even the latter variety couldn't have expected what they saw Saturday, right?
On the road. Top 10 opponent. Rival. Frosh QB. No matter how you set it up, the Tennessee Volunteers felt like its best in a long, long time, one that should have contended and made it one heck of a game. Well, it was -- for the road team and their fans. 49-10, Tide, in a game that should eliminate the talk of another program being in the current running for the top spot nationally.
We take a closer look at how the statement was made.
Take a Bow, Assassins
We've said it before and we'll say it again. It's about the little things. The difference Saturday is that the little things were so very easy to see. Sure, Lane Kiffin called a great game with variety inside runs, outside runs, wide receivers in motion, in the backfield, down the field all while utilizing his running quarterback (more on him later) to kill the will of what some called a team of destiny this year. But a lot of the things that made so many of the big plays work came from one position group.
You didn't see him wielding an ax or sledgehammer on this game day, but Ardarius Stewart,along with Calvin Ridley, Gehrig Dieter and we'll even throw in tight ends O.J. Howard and Miller Forristall as honorary "Assassins" members for this week for their excellent collective work. Aside from an early and rare Ridley drop, the group was consistent as pass-catchers with great routes and finishes after the catch. But those aren't the little things that stood out the most, it was their blocking. Whether on first down jolts, big plays down the field or running scores, this group each channeled their inner T-Pain and "Sprung" important plays all afternoon long.
The first big play came on the game's first score and it was two from the group, Stewart with the ball on his 29-yard reverse from Ridley, with Dieter getting the key block down the field. He not only secured it, but drove his defender back near the end zone before taking him to the ground. Talk about a tone setter. Jalen Hurts also hustled down the field to shield a backside defensive back who had the angle on Stewart. All of it came together for an easy-looking score.
Later, the pass-catchers would return the favor as Hurts scooted in for his first of three running scores, this one the longest from 45 yards out, with Howard, Ridley, Forristall and Stewart each chipping in along the way. The runner was again untouched. This process was duplicated several times along the way as the wide receiver group for Alabama was much too much in the passing game, but it showed up much more in the running game on this day. Some of the NFL prospects in the group, particularly Ridley, Stewart and Howard, could have been somewhat understandingly upset about the lack of passes to the group in this game, but each remains unselfish on the field enough to be considered solid teammates in addition to their individual talent as targets.
Hurts' Complete Game
The trigger-man for the big runs and all of the passes was of course the true freshman that few can get enough of at this point. While he did turn the football over twice, each in some bad-fortune scenarios, all was well otherwise. Very well, I would say.
I don't have to write much about Hurts as a runner. His savvy, acceleration, power and nose for the sticks and/or end zone has been well noted. He's already Nick Saban's season-leading rusher among quarterbacks in the last decade at UA and that comes from natural ability, above-average speed, good vision and most importantly -- and this makes him a great overall QB as well -- his decision-making. Hurts doesn't get hit very hard on running plays, he doesn't fall backwards and a lot of the time he's never on the ground even after his number is called in the running game. Those boxes are checked and it ended with pay dirt three times in the Saturday romp as he averaged more than 10 yards per carry on the way to another 100-yard day using his legs.
It was all else that impressed enough for the game to be considered Hurts' best all-around effort. Again, we have harped on what he does well many times here, from his ball skills to decision making to risk taking to play extension, arm power, anticipation and many elements in between. But he accomplished one of the things necessary for him to begin taking the next step in the process of doing what he usually does so well. Not only did Hurts show more accuracy down the field, particularly on the 31-yard dime to Ridley as he was about to hit the sideline, but he didn't take his usual two or three why-did-you-throw-it-in-triple-coverage heaves that end up under thrown or very highly and easily contested by the opposing secondary. The Ridley connection was about as long as it got on this day, and it was more than enough. Hurts took check-downs, allowing Stewart to create positive yardage on his own several times. It worked with Jacobs and Ridley some, too. With the playmakers UA has around him, it was a shame the easy throws were being somewhat ignored early in the season. It was as if deterring that was the passing game plan and Hurts passed (literally) with flying colors.
The young arm, named Scout's SEC Player of the Week for the effort, is now impressing in all facets of his game. He's taking what the defense gives him through the air, forcing the issue with his legs (a great trait in this offense) while showing more and more accuracy in the intermediate (23-yard hookup with Howard down to the 1 was easy as cake) and down the field throws. This, coupled with his calm and steady approach no matter what the game situation is, ended up being about as perfect a game as one could have asked for even from a seasoned college QB.
Everybody Gets a Shot
Oh, we haven't even gotten to the defense yet. All Alabama did on that side of the ball was hold UT to less than 50 first-half yards on the way to just 163 total in front of their home crowd. It also scored as many touchdowns as it gave up, but that's of course only if you don't count special teams because starting safety Eddie Jackson took another punt return to the house.
The "D" had its way with Tennessee all day long and as this heading states, it seemed like every starter and many reserves each made a big play along the way.
We'll begin with Reuben Foster, who was the best defender on the field but absolutely blew me away on one play in particular. You're not surprised to hear this, but it came on a blitz. But just as the senior stormed the gap, UT motioned running back Jalen Hurd from a split-out position to the backfield, for what looked like a passing play with him as a protector. A moment later, as Foster was taking on the center in the rush, he not only noticed that it wasn't a typical passing play, but it was a screen. With a much bigger man draped all over him, Foster re-directed his rush outside some more and got a hand on Hurd legally behind the line of scrimmage to botch the timing of the play. Joshua Dobbs threw it to the marked spot and Ronnie Harrison had the easiest pick-six of his life for what would be the score that would have been enough to win even though it was just the first quarter. This is how dominant UA was on this day and it was one of several great plays from Foster, whose stock is on fire right now.
The front-seven had anther banner day outside of Foster, who did have one of UA's three sacks along with Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen. The entire group combined for the trio of sacks and a total of 10 tackles for loss including being the direct cause of the defensive score and holding UT to a yard per rush and just over four per pass attempt. Just scary stuff. Allen did it with power and technique, Williams flashed similarly along with easy wins with speed as the right tackle was benched as a result. Foster's linebackermate Shaun Hamilton also continues to exceed expectations, making plays in the backfield and in the passing game on a consistent basis. He and Foster probably represent the best one-two punch of three-down linebackers in America and we continue to see Foster lining up all over the field more as the season progresses.
Jeremy Pruitt deserves a lot of credit for not only remaining aggressive with complex blitzes, but also for mixing up the secondary coverage behind them. More on that in a sec...
DBs Do What They Had to Do
While the game plan versus Arkansas was to pressure at all costs, leaving the secondary somewhat exposed, some felt the group could become more vulnerable in this tough stretch. It turned out to be the opposite as each starter made big-time plays in the win.
The corners came under special scrutiny and the best of the bunch in coverage, Marlon Humphrey was more than up to the task Saturday. Not only did he show improvement with the football in the air, his biggest flaw of late, but he was still his physical self both in run support and even while breaking on the ball in zone coverage. In both cover-2 and cover-3 situations, he flashed more than any other defensive back and ended multiple drives on his own. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Anthony Averett were also solid in both phases. Fitzpatrick was used underneath a bit more against the run on this day, playing with better leverage ability than a player his size should, taking on tight ends and running backs within the front-seven with success on several instances early in the game and in the third quarter. This is again Pruitt at work and another luxury with Fitzpatrick's versatility.
The safety group had, collectively, its worse game a week ago and the combination of Jackson and Harrison rebounded in a big way Saturday. Jackson was all over the field in both passing and running situations, preventing the big play that has gotten the Vols back into so many games in 2016. In addition to the punt return, he was a vocal leader in the win all afternoon long and was in complete control of his secondary before and after each play. Harrison, who has struggled in short to intermediate coverage, looked much better in zone and even broke up a fourth down pass in man coverage to cap his day. In addition to his score, he was also physical against the running game, as per usual. His only slight mistake was a late collapse into the box on former UA running back Alvin Kamara's TD tote.
This unit will need a similar effort versus TAMU next week back at home.
* J.K. Scott can punt the football.
*The weakest Alabama unit on this day was the kickoff coverage unit as the group, while on the field a lot, missed about 10 tackles on Kamara, Evan Berry and company. Lanes were filled but late breakdowns and bad angles hurt the Tide Saturday.
*Cam Robinson had some tough reps to Barnett but rebounded in the second-half against the All-American candidate. He was beat with speed more times than not but eventually used it to funnel Barnett outside as Hurts stepped up in the pocket.
*Ryan Anderson continues to do just about everything so well. We say it every week but he continues to prove it every week. Not as flashy as Williams or Allen, but he's an absolute star and could contend with any All-conference player in the consistency department.
*Da'Shawn Hand performed well in his limited reps once again. He is a very strong run defender with his lower-body drive and leverage and it again showed up early in the game when UA needed to assert itself against the Vol rushing attack.
*Lester Cotton filled in for Shank Taylor admirably and he was arguably the line's top run-blocker when UA was establishing itself in that regard early on.
*One of the Pruitt moves that impressed was moving the struggling Harrison to "robber" role at times in coverage. That way he doesn't have a zone or a man, he just plays the passer's eyes and uses his elite instincts to make plays. On one occasion he tipped a pass that Jackson nearly picked to end a threat.
*Stewart saw a lot of time in the backfield and both he and Ridley seem like the clear running threats from within the Assasin unit. Stewart was a prep QB so you wonder if Kiffin is trying to set up something big here...
*B.J. Emmons was the starting kick returner and had a nice 26-yard run-back on his lone attempt. In both the KR and PR units, it remains an embarrassment of riches for UA with how many legit options it has.