Every highly thought of team faced a tough test Saturday, much tougher than many expected heading into the weekend, but only one CFP team looked the part among the top four. It was Alabama, who blew out Mississippi State at home.
For the first time this year, I traveled to Tuscaloosa to take in the game in person, so this version of our feature comes without the double-checking of the tape. Consider it a live Garcia's Glance.
Hurts shines during showcased plan
After the LSU game, it didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that Lane Kiffin was going to put the ball in Jalen Hurts' hands with lowly MSU in town the following week and it came to fruition early and often. Not only was the traditional passing game going to be emphasized, as all running backs combined for just 20 carries, but the edge was to be as well. LSU did a great job against both the zone-read as well as UA's quick game (jet-sweeps and bubble screens), so Kiffin went to that well early and often. It worked, as Hurts got the ball out of his hands quickly in what can be considered safe extensions of the running game.
But where Hurts seemingly turned the corner was with his downfield reads, anticipation and execution on this afternoon. Part of the credit should be due to the clear plan, as Hurts set early career-highs in passing completions (28), attempts (37), yards (347) and touchdowns (4) during the effort. His one glaring mistake, a late first-quarter interception, wasn't 100 percent on the young arm. The situation wasn't dissimilar to last week's blunder, where Hurts didn't anticipate the wide receiver altering the tail-end of the route based on the defender's position. This time around, he did, but Ardarius Stewart didn't alter the route this time around. Nick Saban said he was expected to cut underneath Jamoral Graham instead of continuing up the seam. Later on, however, Stewart and Hurts would make the third time the charm although nobody would notice. Stewart was facing zone coverage and found himself in between two defenders on a dig route, which typically continues into the middle of the defense. With a defender awaiting the target area, he slowed and Hurts read the hesitation before firing the ball in between each defender for what should have been a short gain. Stewart dropped the pass before continuing on a career day with three scores among his eight catches for 156 yards.
Hurts was efficient down the field for the remainder of the game, but not in a forceful way. At times he appeared to see daylight down the field, but without a clear path to step up in the pocket to prevent the ball from hanging in the air, he chose not to force the ball like he may have done earlier this season. Instead, he bought time and used his outlet options deep in the progression like O.J. Howard and Joshua Jacobs (combined nine catches for 111 yards) and moved the chains aplenty in the process. Otherwise, he was his usual, efficient self as a runner, using his great vision and savvy in the open field to gain yardage without taking big hits. The only mistake in his 11 carries was a dive attempt on a fourth-and-short, which exposed the football enough for the MSU defense to jar it loose.
How scary is it that Alabama can simply work on two concepts during an SEC game in preparation for the postseason and still win 51-3?
Averett, Brown and confidence
I'm not sure what more I can opine positively about the front-seven of the Alabama defense. They're really, really good. They're explosive, athletic, technically sound, deep and rarely misstep within their individual and team responsibility. Allen, Williams, Anderson, Payne, Tomlinson, Foster, Hamilton, etc. are all NFL guys in some way shape or form. MSU couldn't get anything going in the running game, no matter the back or even well above-average Nick Fitzgerald toting the rock as a running quarterback. He took some shots in this one when he dropped back to pass, which I'm sure didn't help the cause. MSU averaged 2.7 yards per carry and just over 4 per pass attempt.
With the Bulldogs wanting to get the ground game going, in theory, Alabama was going to dare Fitzgerald to beat them with his arm. This would again put considerable pressure on the defensive backfield, and they group again delivered. Marlon Humphrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison each made flash plays in the passing game and it's looking like Hootie Jones is now the permanent deep safety in dime sets, but the steadiness of both cornerback Anthony Averett and nickel/dime cornerback Tony Brown have allowed the group to hold up over these last two weeks without captain Eddie Jackson.
Brown made the big plays easy to see, like his first career interception late in the game as well as a pass deflection while blitzing off of the edge, it was the little things and in between plays that impressed most. Along with Humphrey, we've noted how physical Brown can be in sealing the edge and against the run/edge pass, and he was at it again Saturday. Brown was credited with four tackles but influenced many others while holding contain against wide receivers and tight ends. Even offensive linemen struggled with him at times, particularly in the box on a play that could have changed perception within the game. Brown shot inside on the wide receiver assigned to block him while a down block by the frontside tackle and guard cleared the way against Alabama's front. Brown was one-on-two against two pulling linemen and he side-stepped the first while undercutting through the second far enough to affect the front leg of the ball carrier, before more UA defenders cleaned up the play. It went down as a 6 yard gain, but could of and should have been much worse. Brown's incredible effort on this play embodies what his role will be down the stretch.
Averett was playing on the right side of the defense more times than not Saturday, and with Fitzgerald being a young right-armed QB, he was going to default his way more times than not while under duress. Whether it was third-and-longs, on multiple fourth-downs or in between, Averett answered the call down the field on several attempts. He has improved his ability to alter the wide receiver's route at the line of scrimmage and he has always been able to get away with a bit more than others because of his speed, but now he has the confidence and ball skills to go along with it. Averett was timely down the field and he did so with minimal contact because of his tendency to make up ground in a hurry. He ended a trio of MSU drives although his most critical play may have been on special teams when he chased down Brandon Holloway on the tail-end of his 50-yard kick return. More impressively, he did it while not only trailing the play, but after being engaged with a blocker as Holloway juked Adam Griffith in what looked like the last move needed to get the Bulldogs into the end zone.
* Alabama's offensive gameplan allowed not only for Bo Scarbrough, who didn't play, to get extra rest -- but Damien Harris only had three carries and Jacobs finished with nine. The backs will be uber-critical down the stretch and with Emmons injured, all three will be needed in both the running and passing game. Expect them to get plenty of early work next week, save for Scarbrough.
* It was great to see both Derrick Gore and Ronnie Clark get some late carries, wasn't it? Gore is a walk-on from New York who few considered out of high school and Clark was the opposite. He was a Scout four-star who everyone in the SEC wanted before multiple Achilles injuries and position changes have slowed his game day contributions. I was personally hoping he'd snag a late score.
* Two blue-chip recruits who we thought were primarily pass-rushers, Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller, continue to get more and more reps. And they're not just affecting the passing game, either. UA is going to need each to make the most of limited opportunities over the next month and beyond. Each will have sky-high expectations heading into 2017.
* Gehrig Dieter and Stewart were the starting kick returners for this game (Emmons had been in that spot pre-LSU) and true freshman Trevon Diggs got the punt return nod. We've seen several players at each role, but this trio may hold onto the spots the rest of the way.