Saturday night’s prime time made for TV showdown against USC started out like a “So You Think You Can Dance” episode but it ended up being a showcase for “Alabama’s Got Talent.” With USC swaying to and fro as they waited to take the field, my buddy and I smiled the knowing “been there, seen this” smile that has become all too familiar with Alabama’s opponents. Everyone wants Bama. That is, until they get Bama. Then they get Rolled.
If you read our rather lengthy W2W4, then you knew going into the game that we expected the Tide’s defense to easily dance thru the meadow known as the Trojan offensive line and that’s exactly how the game played out. Our film study indicated that the large Trojan Horses along the USC offensive line were similar to the ones built by the Greeks – big and immobile. And, similarly, these USC Trojan Horses opened the doors to an absolute slaughter of the men, er, boys from Troy.
As predicted, the Alabama offense got off to a sluggish start and the Tide’s own offensive line had more than its fair share of issues. However, once Jalen Hurts came in, the perimeter of the USC defense became quite stressed. Shortly thereafter the middle magically opened up for some gashing runs by Damien Harris. Coincidence? We think not. All in all, the offense seemed to improve as the game progressed and coach Nick Saban found a way to gain some valuable experience with his two very talented quarterbacks.
For the Trojans, the rubber met the road at their offensive line of scrimmage and they quickly wilted in the face of pressure. For all the glitz and glam of Los Angeles, the Trojans were found wanting in the physicality department and the Tide rolled to an easy win. Here’s what we saw in our film review this week…
Alabama on Offense
The Bama Lighthouse was overjoyed when it was announced that Blake Barnett would take the opening snaps of the game. As you know, we’ve been touting him for quite some time. However, after two lackluster drives Barnett was replaced by fall camp phenom Jalen Hurts. The word on the street was that Hurts had won the team over during camp so it was perplexing when, early last week, Saban told the media that he was deciding between Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett for Alabama’s starting quarterback gig. Gamesmanship perhaps?
Going into the game, we loved Barnett’s talent but we feared his penchant for throwing touchdowns to the wrong team. So, it is a bit ironic that for all the love of Jalen Hurts after the game, it was actually Hurts who committed Bama’s only two turnovers. However, it was also certainly Hurts who brought Bama’s offense out of the malaise of their opening game jitters and he was the better leader of the two men battling to be the Tide’s full time QB. As John Cougar…er, John Cougar Mellencamp…er, John Mellencamp might sing, “Sometimes games don’t start like they should … but he makes it Hurts so good.”
With Hurts threatening the edges and rolling out to both sides of the field, USC was forced to widen their linebackers and safeties to account for this new dimension of Bama’s offense. At the same time, the Tide’s newly reconstructed offensive line began to find their footing and running lanes began to open up for Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough. Once the pressure was off and Alabama was out to a huge lead, Barnett came back into the game and dazzled fans with three absolute frozen ropes that reminded everyone why he was a five star QB coming out of high school. We have a sneaky suspicion that we’ll continue to see Saban give snaps to both Barnett and Hurts during the season (more on that in a moment). Staying with the John Cougar Mellencamp theme, here are some other thoughts on the Alabama offense…
Hurts So Good: We can’t begin this week’s review of the offense without starting with Hurts. The poise and the confidence he displayed was infectious and as soon as he took charge of the huddle things began to happen – like botching his first zone read handoff. Ooopsy. On the play, Hurts correctly read the USC defensive end and decided he should keep the ball – after all, he had miles of open fake grass in front of him – however the exchange with Harris was mishandled. Early on Hurts did seem to display nervous feet and he bailed from the pocket if his first read wasn’t open. However, once Hurts launched a gorgeous missile strike to Ardarius Stewart the game seemed to slow down for him. Our favorite play was when Hurts quickly diagnosed a busted coverage and then calmly got the ball out to Stewart for a 71 yard touchdown. He could have rushed the throw. He could have quickly fired it over Stewart’s head. Instead, he calmly floated out an easily catchable ball for a touchdown. However, there were some flaws in his game. Hurts finished the night only hitting 6 of 11 passes (three incompletions were thrown into extremely tight coverage and were ill advised) and the majority of his nine carries had him running to his right. As defenses evaluate the film they will likely develop a game plan to take away Hurts’ right side and will likely show zone coverages that force Hurts to throw the ball into coverage windows. Simply put, Hurts was good but honestly he has to improve upon (to be expected for a true freshman).
A Little Night Dancin’: The Lighthouse predicted that Damien Harris would be the feature back against USC and, sure enough, he was. Harris put on two ridiculously sick moves on USC’s safety, leaving a couple of #7’s thongs on Jerry Jones’ lawn. Harris finally displayed the vision and burst that made him one of our favorite players coming out of high school and that jump cut he used a couple of times was reminiscent of Bama’s first Heisman trophy winner, Mark Ingram. Harris also was in there on third downs making him the favored and most trusted back of the Alabama offense. Oh, and don’t worry about him being caught from behind by #2, Adoree Jackson. Jackson is one of the fastest players in all of college football.
Paper and Fire: Once the newspaper articles were all but written about the phenomenal four touchdown (2 passing, two running) performance of Jalen Hurts, Blake Barnett was quietly re-inserted into the game and fared quite well. Hurts was clearly more confident and in charge when he entered the game but Barnett acquitted himself very well once his jitters faded. Barnett showed off his arm on three separate occasions, ripping a 40 yard throw down the seam to OJ Howard, then firing a laser to Cam Sims on a tightly covered slant for 12 yards and then finally throwing a frozen rope of a 45 yard touchdown pass to Gehrig Dieter. Barnett is athletic but he obviously isn’t nearly the runner that Hurts is. However, we do maintain that Barnett is the much better passer. Barnett completed 5 of 6 passes for 100 yards with his only incompletion being a short out that Calvin Ridley dropped.
I Need a Lover: After the first quarter, Saban was surely looking for a lover, or in this case an offensive line, that won’t drive him crazy and he said as much during his halftime and post-game interviews. The line was abysmal early on, failing to pick up blitzes, failing to block the second level linebackers and just failing and flailing in general. Cam Robinson graded out at 88% and was one of the players of the week but the rest of his compatriots left a lot to be desired. New center Bradley Bozeman turned a blitzing safety loose, true freshman Jonah Williams was beaten around the edge and Lester Cotton repeatedly couldn’t work his combo block with Bozeman in a way that allowed him to get to the second level to make a block. Cotton had a particularly bad evening so it will be interesting to see if Shank Taylor takes his spot coming off of his one game suspension.
Wild Night: With Calvin Ridley being held to two catches for nine yards, Ardarius Stewart became the go to man – but oh what a “go to” he was. Stewart hauled in two touchdown passes (4 catches for 113) and teamed with Hurts to open up the game. Stewart is the unsung hero of Bama’s receiving corps so it was nice to see him have such a huge game on a national stage.
Get a Leg Up: Bo Scarborough obviously has the leg up on the goal line and short yardage carries because Kiffin smartly installed big Bo any time tough yards were needed. In these short yardage situations, the line consistently got a good, strong push allowing Bo to convert short yardage opportunities. And, the threat of the interior run only made things easier for Hurts to get outside on the short yardage keepers. FYI – on Bo’s touchdown run, he was offset next to Barnett in the shotgun and Harris lined up behind Barnett in what looked like the pistol formation (but with Bo next to Barnett). At the snap, Barnett gave the ball to Bo on a dive play but he also carried out an option fake with Harris. So, there were three ways Barnett could attack the defense at the goal line – tough to defend for anyone.
- Kiffin loves him some lateral plays. Sweeps, flys, flips, bubbles, roll outs, zone reads etc. Kiffin maddeningly spent the first quarter working the flanks of the USC defense but perhaps this lead to the two massive Damien Harris runs up the middle.
- Bozeman mauled some poor Trojan for about 7 yards on Hurts’ touchdown run off the QB draw. Bozeman really got his groove on in the second half.
- Credit Nick Saban for putting Hurts back into the game after his lost fumble. Saban gets accused of being a cold hearted, unsympathetic coach and it would have been reasonable to think Hurts wouldn’t see the light of day after his turnover. But, Saban responded by putting Hurts back in the game and Hurts responded by giving his coach four thank you notes in the form of touchdowns. By reinserting Hurts, Saban gave the kid an enormous amount of confidence. Well played, coach!
- Jalen Hurts’ stats were impressive but what impressed us most were some of the little things that likely went unnoticed by many. His ball fakes can be very, very good – we lost sight of the ball on one successful QB keeper. As the son of a coach, it’s clear Hurts works on the little nuances of his game. Also, the leadership he exhibited from the sidelines after he was taken out of the game was just awesome.
- Inside the USC 20 yard line, Kiffin kept the ball on the ground and didn’t ask either QB to throw into the Trojans’ red zone defense. Interesting and something to monitor.
- BJ Emmons and Josh Jacobs both looked pretty good as true freshmen RBs. Jacobs showed more power than we expected and Emmons looked like the highly touted RB he was reported to be. However, running backs coach Burton Burns lectured Emmons pretty good on the sidelines after Emmons put the ball on the ground.
- While Hurts was in the game, there was a botched handoff, a couple of false starts and two turnovers. It’s easy to see why Saban was hell bent on improvement after the game.
- Both of USC’s sacks came against Blake Barnett.
- Touchdown Gehrig Dieter!!! So, now is ze time on Sprockets vhen ve dance!!!!!!!
Jalen Hurts stole the show and stole the hearts of Bama fans everywhere with his performance but it’s important to note that there was plenty of room for him to improve. That is to be expected with a true freshman but more development is necessary before Jalen-mania consumes us all. For that reason, look for Blake Barnett to continue to get opportunities at quarterback. Were it not for a drop by Calvin Ridley, Barnett would have gone 6 for 6 on the evening as compared to Hurts’ 6 for 11. Also, we think the staff is concerned about a potential Barnett transfer so that will certainly play a role in getting him some snaps. However, there’s absolutely no debate that Hurts looked like a true leader of men while Barnett initially looked scared to death.
Listen, Alabama can win with either QB and Kiffin can certainly build something special with either Hurts or Barnett. It’s actually the development of the offensive line that is of much more importance and is something for us all to watch in the next two weeks. Shank Taylor will be returning from a one game suspension and if you read between the lines after the game you can surmise the staff wants to insert him back into the starting lineup. If Taylor does eventually replace Lester Cotton then Bama’s offensive line suddenly will have a ton more experience and beef up front. Ross Pierschbacher would move back to LG where he started all of last season and Taylor would move back to his customary RG position. This is a noteworthy development to keep an eye on as this is the only part of Alabama’s offense that is holding it back from being exceptional.
Alabama on Defense
What on earth can you say about Alabama’s defense? If you read our defensive preview or the W2W4, you knew coming into the game that the 2016 version of the Alabama defense would be the fastest one Saban has ever fielded at the Capstone. Well, the defense certainly didn’t disappoint! The beasties up front dominated the line of scrimmage either by powering over or speeding around the USC offensive line. The ability of the front four to “Fight On” to the quarterback allowed the Tide’s fleet footed secondary and linebacking corps to make plays on the ball. The result? A beat down the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Los Angeles since OJ played the role of Nordberg in the Naked Gun series.
It was absolutely nauseating for us to hear about how good the Trojans’ offensive line was during ESPN’s Gameday because our intensive film study revealed the USC line simply wasn’t very good. While their linemen are clearly big and strong, they have no agility and they get off balance very easily. After witnessing the Bama defense register nine tackles for loss, three sacks, a ton of hurries and limit USC’s rushing game to a mere 64 yards of rushing (46 of which came on one play when the game was decided) the Bama Lighthouse is pleased to report that our “eye in the sky don’t lie.” In other words, our film study was spot on – as we foretold, the USC offensive line was abused all night long. Here’s what else we saw on defense…
Hammer Time: God bless Reuben Foster. That dude is just a one man demolition machine and there is no place on the field you can hide from him. It appears he’s even gained a step or two by losing weight but he still packs the same old ferocious wallop when he introduces himself to his opponents. We’ve told you now for three years running that Foster’s pass coverage is underappreciated and it was his coverage that caused Marlon Humphrey’s pick six. Oh, and if you wanted to know who the leader is on the defensive side of the ball, ask Ronnie Harrison. I’m pretty sure he knows who his defensive daddy is after Foster lit him up on the sidelines.
Kryptonite: Jonathan Allen is the kryptonite to opposing offenses. Sacks? Yep. Tackles for loss? Oh yeah. Passes deflected? You bet. He’s like JJ Watt in the respect that he’s able to impact every facet of an offensive attack. He was a beast and showed the versatility to dominate as a DE or a DT.
Should I Stay or Should I Go: Coming into this game, we wanted to see just how much Tim Williams would get to stay on the field. Last year, Williams was only utilized as a situational pass rusher so during the off season he gained an extra 15 lbs in an effort to be an every down defensive end. USC uses fullbacks and tight ends liberally so Alabama used the much bigger Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson at defensive end instead of Williams the majority of the evening. Look to see more of Williams against the spread teams but not against the teams that feature tight ends and fullbacks. *Note: the one time Williams was asked to hold up on the edge he did a really nice job in containing and forcing the run back inside. Oh, and he was still highly effective at pressuring the QB when he was in there.
Need You Tonight: Linebackers are in excess (see what I did there?) at the Capstone and the emergence of Shaun Dion Hamilton has relegated the electric talents of Rashaan Evans to a backup role. Hamilton was outstanding Saturday night both in coverage and, especially, in blowing up the run. Hamilton showed his uncanny ability to shoot thru gaps in the offensive line and make tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He even showed the ability to shed an offensive guard and make a tackle. Look for Evans to be used the same way he was last year – situational pass rushing situations – but look for Hamilton to be the every down LB next to Foster.
I Like Big Butts: I cannot lie, the guy who quite literally jumped off the tape on defense was big Dalvin Tomlinson. Tomlinson was credited with just one lone tackle but he disrupted the USC backfield on numerous occasions, including pressuring Max Browne into throwing the pick six to Marlon Humphrey. On one play, the guard attempted to cut block Tomlinson but he quickly leaped over the guard and proceeded to cause carnage in the backfield. Tomlinson’s background in wrestling (he was the Georgia heavyweight champ) allows him to maintain leverage and he uses his hands about as well as any defensive lineman you’ll see. He’s is Bama’s unsung hero on the interior of the line.
Mama Said Knock You Out: I want someone to make a montage of three Foster hits, a Humphrey hit and a couple other brutal shots. Mercy. Humphrey blasted some fool early and made a heckuva statement to the pretties from USC! Here comes the Pain Train! (I’d forgotten how funny those Terry Tate commercials were)
Desire: Minkah Fitzpatrick desires to be the best corner in college football and he’s well on his way to being just that. On three separate occasions it appeared that Fitz was beaten on a route but, by the time the ball arrived, Minkah had somehow closed the gap and was able to break up the pass. His ability to read routes and to break on the ball from a back peddle is unreal. It wasn’t all rosy for Minkah as he was called for pass interference (it was BS) and he had his balls stomped on. Ouch.
- Ronnie Harrison was jawing on the very first play of the game and his loquacious manner forced Nick Saban and Reuben Foster to attempt to settle him down on the sidelines. Harrison was jawing with a USC player after the whistle and Eddie Jackson correctly told him to shut the @#$# up and get to the sidelines. Harrison then turned his attention and his anger towards Jackson and then you saw the rest of the “conversation” on the sidelines.
- Anthony Averett better get used to being on TV because he’s going to be targeted a bunch. I mean, if you are the opposing QB or the offensive coordinator would you rather attack Humphrey, Fitzpatrick or Averett? By our count, Averett was targeted eight times Saturday night – each time he was in pretty good position but he’s got to learn to look for that pesky football. The one time he did play the ball, he went thru the WR and was called for pass interference. He is talented and he will get better.
- Nearly every pass USC threw was based on a three step drop and yet Bama still pressured the QB all night long. On one play, QB Max Browne had plenty of time but he got nervous and threw the ball away purely out of fear.
- All world USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was held to one catch for nine yards. Wow. I mean, this kid will be the first or second receiver to be drafted next year. Wow.
- All three Tide sacks were generated by a four man rush. The few blitzes Pruitt called during the game appeared to be run blitzes.
- On the 46 yard run by USC, both Bama linebackers were unable to shed blocks by the offensive line. The one concern we have about having lighter linebackers played out on this run as they were unable to take on blocks and make the play.
- Anfernee Jennings showed well at the Jack position and played ahead of Christian Miller. Jennings showed the ability to stack & shed and make plays. Look for #33 to play a role on the defense this season.
- The film was really, really kind to Keith Holcombe (#42). Holcombe was active at the line of scrimmage and showed exceedingly well in pass coverage. He even stayed with the speedy Ronald Jones and broke up a wheel route! 42 looks very good.
- Leaving Jonathan Allen unblocked is suicide. USC left him unblocked three separate times and he personally ruined all three plays. Alabama’s line is very well schooled on what to do if/when they are left unblocked.
There really isn’t much to say after the Alabama defense completely dominated and even outscored the USC offense. The speed of this group is unreal and the front four appeared to be just as dominant as ever. If Bama can get away with rushing only four men then Jeremy Pruitt has seven elite defenders who can play the pass – that makes for a mighty long day for an offense.
Alabama on Special Teams
We really didn’t get to see much out of the special teams but what we did see we liked. JK Scott averaged 47 yards per punt and even punted one off the screen that landed at the two yard line. Adam Griffith stroked the only FG he attempted (29 yarder) and was consistent with his kickoffs.
In the return game, Trevon Diggs showed a little bit of why he’s been the talk of camp with a 24 yard kickoff return but Calvin Ridley never got a chance to get loose as a punt returner. Meanwhile, Saban fearlessly kicked off to one of the best returners in the country in Adoree Jackson and Jackson nearly took one back to the house. It’s tough to tell if that’s just Jackson being good or if the coverage was bad so that’s something to monitor going forward.
The SEC had a wretched opening weekend so suddenly there is a little more spring in the Bama Lighthouse’s step today. Road games at Ole Miss, at Arkansas and at LSU don’t look nearly as daunting today and we feel certain Alabama has a bit more talent than Appalachian State so that will be a significant issue for Tennessee. So what looked like an American Ninja course now looks like a muddy fun run to Centennial Park for Alabama.
Suddenly Alabama’s biggest opponent on the schedule appears to be Alabama. Jalen Hurts will only improve going forward. Alabama’s playbook will only expand and become harder to defend going forward. If Alphonse (Shank) Taylor returns to the starting lineup then what originally looked like a young, inexperienced line could become a strength instead of a weakness. Oh, and that defense…that defense is legit.
With the rest of the SEC faltering and apparently heading for a fall, the biggest, baddest bully in the ring is still standing tall and ready to take on all comers. Roll Tide!