For the third straight final Saturday in November, Alabama got the better of in-state rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Saturday's 30-12 result was largely a tale of two halves for the UA offense while the defense did what it has done extremely well over the last month -- dominate.
While the D hasn't allowed a touchdown since October 22, a span of 17-plus quarters of action, the offense has looked up and down in the span. But it turned the corner near halftime Saturday and looked like the 'Bama of old, running the football effectively and controlling the clock with the lead in hand.
Let's take a closer look at the rivalry victory.
ArDarius All Day Long
Big-play wide receiver Ardarius Stewart didn't play at all last week vs. Chattanooga (coach's decision, violation) and not only was he going to be fresh for the Iron Bowl -- but he would be featured. Lane Kiffin made it a point to get the ball into No. 13's hands early and often. Whether it was a quick screen, jet pass or traditional route down the football field, the physical wideout had as many chances as he's ever had wearing crimson and white. He took advantage with a career-high 10 catches and the score that basically put the game out of reach late in the third quarter.
With the game still somewhat in the balance in the third quarter, Nick Saban elected to go for a fourth-and-4 on Auburn's side of the field. Kiffin would dial up a designed roll-out for Jalen Hurts to his strong side (right), putting the onus on right guard Korren Kirven and right tackle Jonah Williams. Each delivered to both give Hurts time to lock in on Stewart and it gave time to accomplish one of the longer routes on the tree -- a whip route (some call it a pivot). Working against top AU cover corner Carlton Davis, the junior had to push Davis inside as if he were running a slant to the sticks (first down marker) before reversing or pivoting back towards the sideline. The elongated protection along with Hurts' athleticism bought Stewart just enough time as Davis over-committed to the inside of the route. Hurts then delivered the ball towards the sideline and Stewart was able to haul it in, beat Davis up the field and break another tackle near the 5-yard line while Calvin Ridley got enough of safety Stephen Roberts (a one-time UA commitment) for Stewart's dive into the end zone.
Whether it was the dagger throw described above or a routine screen to let Stewart's natural talent and physicality produce yardage, Kiffin leaned on the high school quarterback. He even called a double-pass in order for Stewart to showcase his arm during a laser completion to O.J. Howard for 12 yards and a first down. We've long thought Stewart could test the NFL Draft waters with a strong season and he flashed enough Saturday, alone, to peak some interest at the next level. He's big, strong, fast, physical with the ability to block and the willingness to compete all day long.
Hurts' Day Much Better Upon Second Glance
This has been a trend this season and the Iron Bowl wasn't much different -- Hurts not only learns from his mistakes but like a polished running back, he actually improves as the game goes along. His first half Saturday was similar to that of the LSU game earlier this month, it was sloppy, turnover-laden and represented some of the few times he looked like the true freshman quarterback in the SEC that he is. But upon re-watching the game, once again it's like the early mistakes didn't happen and you look up to a stat line that reads quite well. Hurts finished the game 27 of 36 passing, the highest completion percentage in Iron Bowl history, for 286 yards and a pair of scores to go along with the first-half interceptions. He also ran for a score among his 37 yards on foot.
Hurts, even in the seemingly poor first half, still put together consistent throws in the short to intermediate variety. It was also efficient, as he connected on double-digit passes in a row in between blunders. But it was in the second half in which he was arguably the best player on the field at times. He was smart, got over the simple missteps and ran with more savvy in the open-field after running into too much contact and misreading the mesh point at times in the first half. His second-best throw was the TD toss to Stewart we broke down earlier, but his best was to his other top target -- Ridley.
With the game 10-9 late in the second quarter, following another AU field goal, UA could have conceded and rolled into the half after the sloppy effort that saw at least four footballs fumbled in addition to two interceptions thrown. But Kiffin and Hurts went to work and confidence boomed, a corner was turned and it was a sign of the way the rest of the game would go on third-and-8 from UA's 36-yard line. Davis was pressing Ridley in the slot and the future NFLer nearly made the Tiger defender fall with the move he put on him, gaining groung in a hurry. Once that happens, it's all about reaction time for the QB and Hurts saw it immediately, as did the safety to that side. It became a pseudo-hot read, meaning the back-half of the route no longer needed to be executed because of how big the window to hit Ridley became. It turned into a seam route and it was a matter of arm strength and accuracy for Hurts with the safety coming downhill and a now-trailing Davis busting it to catch up to Ridley. Not only did Hurts recognize the tight window and put some mustard on the ball, but he threw it a tad behind Ridley in order for him to shield his head and the ball from the incoming safety looking to make a ball-separating hit. Ridley hauled it in for 25 yards. Hurts hit Howard for 13 yards on the next play to get Adam Griffith in range for points before the break. UA would continue that momentum into the second half during a run in which it scored 17 unanswered points to put the Iron Bowl out of reach.
Williams Has Become A Wall
On the touchdown from Hurts to Stewart on fourth down, which we detailed above, not only did Kiffin design the back-breaker play of the game on Williams' back, but it needed more time than expected to execute. Williams was up to the task and recognized an AU blitzer off of the edge based on it being fourth down. Despite the defender being a safety, Williams was still able to reach block him before putting him in the Bryant-Denny Stadium turf for an ultra-clear path for Hurts' on-target pass. Stewart and the wideouts did the rest.
Williams has been better than perhaps even the UA coaches expected, and Saturday was his latest triumph. On most snaps, Auburn tried to take advantage of the frosh offensive lineman, placing top pass-rusher Carl Lawson on his side for some one-on-one matchups. Williams lost the first one, on UA's first offensive snap, but Damien Harris had his back with a chip-block to prevent further damage. It was Lawson's first step that burned Williams, so I had my eyes on that situation the rest of the way. Williams would rebound quite nicely, and only lost one more rep to Lawson all afternoon long -- and it wasn't via the first-step. In fact, Lawson tackled Hurts for no gain on the late play, as Hurts took off on a designed pass in which Lawson's pass-rushing angle was cut off. He came back underneath as Hurts decided to run, a play that many offensive line coaches wouldn't even consider a loss. That was it. That's how good Williams has been.
But it wasn't just the steady freshman on this day, but the entire Alabama offensive line. Whether on Hurts' TD toss to Harris to get the scoring going, where he had a ton of time, or even on scrambles that weren't designed QB runs -- the line more than held its own against one of the best fronts in the nation. AU had zero sacks and rarely pressured Hurts during his record-efficiency Iron Bowl performance. He is statistically one of the worst passers in the SEC when under duress (yes, it's a skewed stat since Hurts' runs during those situations aren't taken into account), so the protection is paramount. It will need to remain that way against Florida in Atlanta and of course beyond in the College Football Playoff, for UA to repeat as national champion.
This section won't be long because half of the mystery has already been answered. The defense is really, really good and Aubrun's offense simply is not.
But within UA's secondary, It's clear Minkah Fitzpatrick will be Mr. versatile for this Alabama secondary the rest of the way. We knew he replaced Eddie Jackson on early downs and in base packages, but we saw the second layer of possibility Saturday once Tony Brown was ejected for targeting. Brown had been the nickel back, or slot cornerback, on every package outside of the base defense, which is what Alabama lines up in more times than not. With Brown out, it was Fitzpatrick who rotated back there as he was for the bulk of the time when Jackson was healthy. He has experience and has long been up to the task, but once again -- those reps were not extremely valuable this time around because Alabama has yet to be tested vertically since Jackson went down. It won't happen against Florida, either.
That means the first time this unit, even with Brown back, faces a legitimate passing game complete with an above-average quarterback and polished wide receivers, will be in the College Football Playoff. This is fairly concerning even before you consider the unknown with top cover-corner Marlon Humphrey's right leg injury (looked like a high-hamstring issue) suffered in the second-half Saturday. Ronnie Harrison will have to play in deep coverage more as will Hootie Jones, who has a fair amount of experience in the deep role. Fitzpatrick will theoretically patrol deep with Brown back in the mix, which could be reversed should Humphrey be a bit more banged up than we realize. Levi Wallace replaced Humphrey at cornerback on Saturday and held his own.
Stay tuned, here.
* How about Bo? Scarbrough has saved his best running for the last five weeks or so, beginning with the UT game. He bounces better than most big backs because he is a great athlete with great feet, but the more he shows this power, the more likely he will remain the fourth quarter closer back for Alabama. He's a great kid who has been through a lot and 'Bama will need him down the stretch.
* Ryan Anderson being under-appreciated is a played-out tune, but man, he's excellent. It's not the pass-rushing, which is as good as anyone else in the SEC, for me. It's everything else. He is as disciplined a defender as I've seen in this era and he makes up for a lack of pure athleticism with smart angles and immense power to go along with his technique. He, Allen and Williams on the field together remains unfair.
* Hootie Jones continues to impressive down the field. He's not asked to play man coverage very much, which is a good thing for UA, but he's gone all in on zone concepts and really turned the corner. He is the defensive Bo for me, meaning he'll be a major need down the stretch and late in games. The way to beat 'Bama is the vertical passing game and the CFP qualifiers know it.
* Regarding the Hurts interceptions, neither was a bad read by him. It was more of an execution thing. The first was more on Stewart not turning his head quick enough, though more air was needed on the ball. The second was either a scheme blunder with two WRs in the same spot or a misstep somewhere. But Ridley drifting on the corner route was there, although the throw was released a split-second too soon. Hurts anticipated the cut before it happened, which is fine if the targets are standing upright, which they were not.
* Harris' vision has impressed me as much as any 'Bama back in the last five years. It's one thing to be patient, as most of the guys UA recruits seemingly always are, but Harris is one step ahead every time he touches the football. I know offensive linemen love to block for a back like that and that's perhaps part of the reason he is the "starter" among these tailbacks.