I love roller coasters. I always have. I love the ups, the downs, the flips and twists and turns that dizzy my brain and leave me feeling exhausted. It’s an exhilarating feeling to be completely out of control and yet somehow be in control the entire time. Love me some coasters.
For the last three years, the Ole Miss game has been Alabama’s Tower of Terror. In the last three years the Ole Miss game has had more twists, flips and turns than the Mind Bender and things seem to go downhill for Alabama faster than the Goliath. Lately, every time Saban gets off Mr Freeze’s ice coaster, it’s resulted in a quick race to the puke bucket.
Except this year.
Not this time.
Not with this true freshman quarterback.
This year the Scream Machine was just a joyous thrill ride rather than a train that inexplicably jumped the tracks. This year, Alabama’s usual array of self-inflicted gunshot wounds weren’t fatal. This year instead of death by a thousand paper cuts, Alabama’s many attempts at Hari Kari merely resulted in flesh wounds and the Tide lived to fight another day. Whew.
Man, what a rush that game was! From the downs of watching the medical staff reassembling Jalen Hurts after his fumble was returned for a touchdown to the ups when Jonathan Allen rumbled and bumbled and stumbled his way into the end zone. Then back to the downs when Bama fans nervously watched as Damien Harris and company pounded out the last three minutes of the game…
What. A. Rush.
What. A. Game.
Let’s try to break some of this craziness down, shall we?
Alabama on Offense
Conventional wisdom said that Lane Kiffin would do everything possible to ease his true freshman quarterback into his first ever SEC road game. It is well known that the running game can be a quarterback’s true best friend and with the revamped Bama offensive line it seemed certain that Bama would a grueling ground assault.
Well, let it be said that Lane Kiffin is anything but conventional.
By the end of the first half, Jalen Hurts either ran the ball or threw the ball 31 times while handing the ball to his running backs just nine times. NINE times! Granted, the vast majority of Hurts’ throws were simple tunnel screens and bubble screens but, still, the early game plan called for Jalen Hurts to carry this win and his team over the goal line. Amazing. More amazing still, after Hurts got knocked somewhere into the middle of Graceland, he was somehow able to compose himself and deliver the win!
But Hurts of course didn’t deliver the win by himself. For perhaps the first time this season, he had the help of a multitude of individuals on the offensive side of the ball who worked as a team to overcome a 24-3 deficit. Here’s how they did it…
Come On Baby Make it Hurts So Good: Yeah, apologies in advance but I think we’ll be wearing out this John Cougar (Mellancamp, Cougar-Mellancamp, Mellencamp) diddy for the next three years or so. Sure, Hurts missed a wide open TE and he still continually underthrows each and every long ball he fires downfield. But, these things should improve over time. What you can’t coach is his the ability to stand in the pocket, survey the field and deliver a strike about one minute after he had his helmet, head and chest exploded by a vicious blind side hit. Instead of looking around for the next Rebel intent on inflicting damage, the true freshman simply dropped back, calmly looked left then calmly looked right and eventually hit Ridley over the middle for a big gain. I don’t care who you are, that’s a helluva testament to Hurts’ poise, demeanor and leadership. It’s pretty easy to see why he’s won his teammates over.
2 of Hurts: Hurts opened up the game by flinging the ball here, there and everywhere. After a while Hurts was asked to shake things up a little bit as he began gashing the Rebs on the ground. The QB draw up the middle was particularly effective but his scrambles from the pocket were deadly on third downs. When Hurts broke the pocket against man to man coverage there was no one available to track him down. Teams will begin committing a spy in an effort to defend Hurts. This means that will be one less defender rushing the passer and one less defender in coverage. This will be a huge advantage for Alabama.
Locomotion: We smiled when it was announced that Alphonse Taylor and Ross Pierschbacher were finally returning to the positons they started at on the little ole team that won the national championship game last year. The interior of the Ole Miss line looked pretty nasty but the two aforementioned guards, along with Bradley Bozeman, plowed a path for 334 yards rushing by the Tide. The interior of the Bama line completely dominated their foes, converting every single time they had a short yardage situation. Oftentimes the push of the offensive line would result in the Ole Miss line standing two yards off the line of scrimmage.
Wild Horses: Wild horses couldn’t drag Damien Harris away from the goal line as he shed three Ole Miss defenders on his way to his huge 67 yard run. On the play, Alabama hurried back to the line of scrimmage to run the exact same play they had just run for seven yards on the down before. The play is a counter play off the zone read. As the influence of the play and the fly sweep went to the right, Alphonse Taylor and OJ Howard pulled left. The Ole Miss defenders took themselves out of the play by following the flow of the play (set up by the first half perimeter plays) so with the pulling of the two extra blockers, the Rebs were outnumbered worse than the Battle of Lookout Mountain. On the previous play, Alphonse Taylor couldn’t quite secure is kick out block. But, the second time around Taylor nailed his kickout block on the edge while Cam Robinson’s down block washed away any pursuit. Harris shot thru the huge crease created by Taylor and Robinson and then followed a sprinting Howard who was desperately looking for someone to block. Harris sprinted all the way to the Rebel 25 yard line where he shrugged off the first of three Rebel tacklers. Shaken but not stirred, Harris made it ten more yards where another Johnny Reb defender wrestled with him and tried to rip away the ball. They continued to wrestle for eight yards before Harris finally threw him away, as well, ultimately getting tackled at the one. Whew – I’m tired from just typing all that. Damn, what a run.
When You’re Ready, Come and Get It: In the game, the Tide offense converted a pretty impressive 7 of 15 third down conversions. However did you know that only one of those was via the pass (Hurts converted a 3rd & 5 with a six yard pass)?? The Bama Lighthouse loves it when Alabama simply lines up and runs the football down someone’s throat for a first down so we were overjoyed to see Damien Harris convert a 3&1, 3&2 and 3&1 via the ground. Jalen Hurts also converted a 3&3, 3&10, and another 3&10 with his legs. Hurts’ ability to run for a first down is quite a weapon that will be confounding defenses on third downs for years to come.
Bo Diddly: With all the hype surrounding Bo Scarborough at the beginning of the season, it’s been disappointing to see him struggle to get touches. Harris has shown he’s very solid with his blitz pickups and Joshua Jacobs appears better suited than Bo to run the zone reads so we are wondering what Bo’s role will be. Scarborough’s fumble could have cost Bama the game but it certainly cost him more reps in the future.
Same As it Ever Was: Kiffin called the same play twice in a row on three different occasions during the game. Early in the game we noticed Kiffin called the zone read with Hurts and Jacobs on two consecutive plays. Then, as we noted, Harris’ long run was the second time in a row that play was called. Then, at the end of the game, Kiffin called for three tight ends to line up to the right and then Harris ran over the right side three times in a row. If it ain’t broke…
Danger: On the sack that caused the Jalen Hurts fumble resulting in a disputed Ole Miss touchdown (a blatant block in the back well before the touchdown should have nullified the score), Hurts never had a chance. Neither did Alphonse Taylor. Jonah Williams blocked down from his tackle spot, leaving a very fast defensive end unblocked and with a clear path to Hurts. On the play, Taylor was asked to loop outside to pick up the defensive end but that was like asking one of Japan’s sumo wrestlers to beat Usain Bolt in a footrace. Taylor was too big and way too slow while the Rebel end was too quick and too fast – the results were predictable. Let’s not ask Taylor to have to do that again.
Not Enough: Just a quick note on Cam Robinson. His efforts have been below average thus far this season and we aren’t saying that just because of his false start penalties. Cam actually got bullrushed onto his backside and was beaten several other times as well. Right now Robinson is losing NFL money every time he takes the field.
- Calvin Ridley’s leadership really impressed us Saturday afternoon. He simply refused to lose. Trailing 24-3, Ridley snatched the ball from center and dove into the end zone like a man possessed. Ridley’s 45 yard catch on 2nd & 18 was an underappreciated play in the game. Hurts wrong shouldered him again on the throw but somehow Ridley contorted himself and came down with a huge catch.
- Coming into the season, the Lighthouse mentioned that this was the deepest TE group Bama has had in quite some time. All four TEs played a role in the victory, though Hale Hentges’ blow to Ardarius Stewart’s cranium was, um, not the way the play was designed.
- True freshman Josh Jacobs is emerging as the #2 back that the staff can count on. Our favorite Jacobs play was on an ad-lib where Hurts was flushed from the pocket on 3rd & 10. Hurts had one man to beat and pointed him out to Jacobs who quickly obliged with a key block that allowed Hurts to convert the first down. These two true freshman were just making it up as they went along in Oxford – pretty cool to see.
- Alphonse Taylor had a regrettable game. He whiffed on a few blocks and committed a holding penalty to boot. Oh, and nearly got his young QB killed. Yuck.
- Once again Alabama played behind the chains for much of the game. As the line continues to gel this should become a thing of the past and, once that happens, look out. But, playing behind the chains is a tough, tough way to live.
- Bradley Bozeman was a straight up beast at center. He completely and totally dominated the interior of the Ole Miss line in a way we didn’t think possible.
- We’ve been complimentary of Hurts’ ball fakes for the last couple of weeks and he really showed them off against the Rebs. On his biggest gainer, Hurts ran the zone read and his slick ball fake resulted in the defensive end, linebacker and safety taking the bait. The safety’s hesitation allowed tight end Miller Forristall (a Lighthouse favorite) to get upfield and take him out. Hurts showed some pretty fancy wheels on that one as well!
- Just as we mentioned after the USC game, all of those maddening perimeter plays early in the game once again seemed to eventually open up the middle of the defense. AL.com reported there were 12 perimeter plays that went for a paltry 30 yards in the first half. With the interior of the Ole Miss line gassing themselves by chasing ghosts for much of the first half, their weary legs gave up 218 (of 334) yards rushing in the second stanza.
- Bama’s running game salted away the final 2:51 of the game. With Bama only leading by five, the two first downs Alabama gained on the ground were critical.
The first half offered Bama fans the usual “WTF” comments about Lane Kiffin’s offensive plan. Twelve perimeter plays in the first two quarters gained a meager 30 yards and the offense generated three points with just three minutes left in the half.
But after hurling 24 passes in the first half, the game plan changed and Hurts only threw eight in the second half. Meanwhile, after spending the first half chasing all those perimeter plays, the middle of the Rebel defense parted like the red, er, Crimson sea in the final two quarters.
So let’s credit Kiffin and Co for successfully shifting their game plan after a frustrating first half. And, we should all pause and give Lane Kiffin props for his ability to orchestrate this offense. In all of his vast experience as an offensive play caller, Kiffin has never run any zone read stuff and he’s never had to develop a game plan that accentuates the abilities of a running QB. Kudos to Lane and the rest of the staff for adapting to the new style of college football.
Alabama on Defense
Time is running short here so we are going to cut right to the analysis. Frankly, the defense struggled Saturday. Say what you will about the onsides kick and the loss of three vital components (Reuben Foster, Eddie Jackson and Minkah Fitzpatrick) of the defense in the latter stages of the game, but the fact remains that Saban’s vaunted defense gave up 522 yards of total offense. That’s just not good.
Most of the conversations around the Tide’s stuggles on defense seem to focus on the second half. Lest we remind you that Ole Miss scored a touchdown on their very first possession of the game. Lest we remind you that Bama once again blew a coverage VERY badly and gave up a 63 yard touchdown pass in the first half. So, it wasn’t just a second half issue…however….
The Rebs’ last three possessions of the game certainly did take their toll on Bama’s undermanned D. Six plays and 55 yards had marched Ole Miss deep into Bama territory but Jonathan Allen ended that with a 75 yard interception return for a touchdown. Unfortunately, there was no rest for the weary. With zero time to rest, the Tide defenders had to turn right around and endure 12 more plays and 78 more yards and yet another touchdown from the Rebels. One onsides kick later, Ole Miss was in the end zone again. The final tally of the last three Ole Miss possessions: 19 straight plays in the span of 4:42 seconds.
Here are some quick thoughts:
- It’s insane how many hits Chad Kelly is asked to take as a QB. Worse yet, he also subjects himself to some wicked hits. Just before Eddie Jackson’s outstanding punt return, Reuben Foster ear-holed Kelly along the sidelines. Then, before the half ended, they ran Kelly up the middle where he got whacked again. That’s just insane.
- Alabama’s front line generated just one sack (Ryan Anderson). Shaun Dion Hamilton got another one on a blitz. That’s it. There were some good pressures but just the two sacks on the day.
- Ronnie Harrison bit hard on a toss sweep fake (OM had run the toss sweep earlier) and in doing so he blew the coverage on the 63 yard touchdown to Evan Engram. Everyone knew Engram would be the key to the Rebs passing attack and yet there he was – standing all alone out there like he was out to practice early. All told, Engram hauled in 9 catches for 138 yards and a TD.
- Nick Saban nearly had a coronary when he jumped Minkah Fitzpatrick for blowing a coverage, leaving Marlon Humphrey all alone to defend an underthrown jump ball.
- Humphrey was beaten for a touchdown with another underthrown jump ball to AJ Brown. Brown is a heckuva player – Humphrey will not be the last to lose a jump ball to the 6’1, 225 lb receiver.
- Ole Miss throws the deep ball against Alabama better than anyone else in the conference. Long sustained drives are usually not happening against the Tide so Kelly likes to take his yards in huge chunks. There were seven (of 26) completions of over 20 yards: 63, 44, 44, 37, 32, 25 and 22 yard completions accounted for 267 (64%) of Kelly’s 421 yards passing.
- Aside from one unfortunate 21 yard TD run, Bama stuffed the Ole Miss running game. On that play, Dalvin Tomlinson was rooted out of his gap and Hamilton and Averett couldn’t close in to fill the hole. Meanwhile, Eddie Jackson followed the option fake and Ronnie Harrison was nowhere to be found. This bust appeared to be a result of Ole Miss going at hyper speed…
- Ole Miss was 10 for 10 in red zone attempts on the season until Hamilton did an excellent job of blitzing from his linebacker position on third and goal. His blitzing path took him right to the primary receiver, Evan Engram, and Hamilton bumped him off his route before continuing on to pressure Kelly into getting rid of the ball.
- Ryan Anderson’s “roughing the passer” penalty was a joke.
- On Daron Payne’s game tying touchdown, Ronnie Harrison showed blitz which seemed to confuse the Rebel offensive line into allowing Ryan Anderson to have a free shot at Kelly. Kelly actually saw Anderson coming off the edge but he didn’t protect himself or the ball from the resulting strip sack. Kelly had time to get down so it was a really bad turnover by Kelly.
- In a game filled with momentum changing plays, an underrated one was the Rebels 33 yard completion (on an incredibly throw) that was originally ruled a touchdown. The refs correctly ruled the receiver was down at the one yard line and three plays later the Rebs were kicking a field goal instead of an extra point. Credit must go to Tomlinson (who shoved the guard into the backfield) and Anfernee Jennings who crashed from the edge, stuffing the Rebs on first and goal from the one.
- Foster was hurt at the end of the third quarter, forcing Rashaan Evans into a linebacking role that he’s not quite ready to handle just yet. Two plays later, Minkah Fitzpatrick left the game with an injury, leaving true freshman Shyheim Carter to fend for himself in the Bama secondary.
- Bama rotated the front four throughout the fourth quarter but Hamilton, Humphrey, Harrison and Averett never really got a break.
- There were several contributors on the game changing Jonathan Allen interception return for a touchdown. Bama lined up with just three down lineman but showed blitz with LBs Christian Miller and Hamilton. At the snap, Hamilton bailed out to pick up the back and Miller stopped his blitz in order to spy on Kelly. Meanwhile, Tim Williams was using his pure brute strength, bull rushing the right tackle into Kelly’s lap and eventually getting his hand on Kelly’s arm. Out came the ball as Miller came in for the kill shot and the rest is history. (Note to the team – always check behind you before you celebrate the last 10 yards to the end zone).
- Eddie Jackson left the game at the five minute mark and that left the Tide without Foster, Fitzpatrick and Jackson on defense for the final two Ole Miss touchdowns.
- Ole Miss attempted perhaps the worst two point play in the history of organized football. I mean, what exactly was the plan there?
Look for Bama’s future opponents to take a ton of deep shots against the Tide secondary – in particular jump balls look to be mighty effective after Saturday. But, no matter how you dissect the troubles on defense, the fact remains that the defense scored two crucial touchdowns that turned the game around.
And how about Eddie Jackson returning punts? Who saw that coming? When Jackson fielded the punt at his own 16, the Ole Miss gunners were seven yards away – the very definition of out-kicking your coverage. Deionte Thompson picked off the first gunner with a sweet block that sent Jackson on his merry way. When it looked like Jackson would bounce the return outside, he pointed out two blocks and cut back up the hashmarks to the end zone. Shyheim Carter, Christian Miller, Hootie Jones and Damien Harris all had key blocks as Jackson maneuvered his way towards a momentum changing touchdown – Bama’s second touchdown in 1:05 minutes. As the announcers raved about Alabama’s NCAA leading 13th non-offensive touchdown since 2015, little did they know there would be two more non offensive touchdowns on the day!
Honestly, I could write for days and days and still never fully detail all of the game changing moments of this game. From Jalen Hurts composing himself after the fumble to Eddie Jackson’s punt return that effectively ended the first half on a high note, there’s so much to cover in the first half alone. And then…then the second half came along. Allen’s strip sack. A HUGE conversion on 2nd and 18 from Jalen Hurts to Calvin Ridley. Two defensive touchdown and a goal line stand that seems to be forgotten amongst the litany of ups, downs, twists and turns of this epic game. We could go on and on.
Folks, this is why you tune in on Saturdays. This is why you carve out four hours of your life to watch a football game. Deep in your heart, you hope for a game like this that gets your blood pumping and your little heart beating so fast you’d swear you played in the game yourself.
At the end of the day, this Bama team overcame the very same things that buried them against the Rebels over the last two years. An 8 yard punt. Numerous false starts, holding penalties and long yardage situations. A mysterious moment where the ball just jumped out of Jalen Hurts’ hand. Another blown coverage. And another. And another. And then a sack, fumble and TD return for the Rebels that seemingly put this game into the win column for Ole Miss.
Except it didn’t. Not this year. Somehow this 2016 Alabama Crimson Tide team was able to overcome the issues that kept the 2014 & 2015 teams from beating Ole Miss.
And now it’s 3-0 and on to Kent State. It’s a great time to be a Bama fan!