Alabama rolled into College Station for what was deemed a true toss-up game, and it played out just that way. Fortunately, the scoreboard favored the good guys when all was said and done, leaving the Tide in the driver’s seat where the SEC West is concerned. There is still so much to clean up, as Alabama had to again overcome its own mental mistakes to bring home the victory, but this team has no quit in it.
Five games into the season, it’s fair to say that this pass defense is elite. For the third straight week, an opponent found it near impossible to find room to throw downfield with a ferocious pass rush breathing down the neck of the quarterback. We saw a fair amount of blitzing in the first half and there were some wins, but the little bit of success that A&M was able to find on offense came mostly against the blitz. In the second half, the staff figured out that Texas A&M couldn’t win one-on-one in the trenches or outside, and Alabama was able to effectively shut down the Aggies without taking too many risks.
It could have been an even more dominant day on the defensive side without a couple of big mental errors. Deontae Lawson got caught in between after thinking about jumping a route on 3rd and long, and as a result gave up the catch and run for a first down conversion. Then, very late in the contest, Kool Aid McKinstry tried to strip the ball rather than wrap up Ainias Smith, and Smith very nearly scored on a long catch and run. In both of those instances, all Alabama needed was a tackle after the catch, and a lack of situational awareness was costly.
Outside of a couple of plays, however, the defense was awesome. McKinstry gave up one early deep ball on a perfect back shoulder throw to Moose Muhammed III, but that was about it as far as downfield passing. Caleb Downs continues to look like a dude who is going to leave Tuscaloosa as a legend in a couple of years. Not only did he make a ridiculously athletic interception at a time in the game where Alabama most needed it, but he had a key stop on third down where he showed the awareness to allow the catch and make a sure tackle. You can’t convince me that the kid is a freshman.
The starting DL of Jaheim Oatis, Tim Keenan and Justin Eboigbe ate Texas A&M alive all day, which allowed Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell to pin their ears back. This Alabama front has brute strength that we haven’t seen from a Tide defense in several years, a clear reversal from the trend toward lighter, quicker players. With Downs and Jaylen Key holding down the back end, and the corners playing as well as they are, quarterbacks are having to hesitate in the pocket and it hasn’t worked out well for them very often. The one mental error aside, Deontae Lawson is a bona fide star as the leader in the middle. There simply doesn’t appear to be a weakness anywhere on this unit, and if they continue to improve this might just be a defense that can carry the team to a national title.
On the other side, the Texas A&M front was as good as advertised. Alabama finally found a smidge of running room after halftime, but it was tough sledding all day. Indeed, this is a game that Jalen Milroe had to win with his arm.
Guess what? He did it!
Milroe continues to grow as both a passer and a field general. He hit quite a few beautiful throws down the field, but I was most impressed with his last touchdown to Jermaine Burton. It was just a short crossing route, but it was right on the money which allowed Burton to get upfield. More importantly, Milroe got the right read pre-snap, stayed calm as the play clock ran low, and in a loud environment managed to check to the right play and get the snap off just in time.
Burton had himself a day, amassing 197 yards and two touchdowns. He also drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for chirping at the opponent and lost a fumble. I wasn’t too upset about the fumble as he was trying to make a high effort play, but it was still a mental mistake. Something tells me there will be a conversation about the chirping.
The offensive line continues to be a bit concerning, though Milroe did enjoy more clean pockets than most probably would have expected coming in. There was zero room to run the ball in the first half and it didn’t get much better in the second. Darrian Dalcourt missed the game with some kind of shoulder issue, and backup Jaeden Roberts seemed to fill in well in his first college start. This is one of the best defensive fronts in the country, so hopefully the experience will be good for development.
Besides not being able to run the ball, the OL kept Alabama behind the chains too often in the game thanks to false starts. Seth McLaughlin snapped it a little better, but he was also good for two illegal snaps. All told, Alabama was flagged a whopping 14 times for 99 yards, while Texas A&M had only 4 penalties for 19 yards. Some of that was nonsense home cooking (looking at you, blindside block!) but Alabama made way too many errors. It’s tough to imagine a team winning a playoff game with that many penalties.
Injuries are a major concern. Malachi Moore went down with an ankle injury, and it sounds like he will be out for a while. Kristian Story and Trey Amos saw playing time in his stead, and for at least one half of football the Tide seemed no worse for wear at those positions. Punter James Burnip is in the midst of an outstanding season and he went down as well. Will Reichard stepped into a dual role and averaged 41 yards a punt. Will has been invaluable this season. Be thankful he came back.
Your individual point of view will determine your perception of this team at this point. On one hand, with just a few of the mistakes eliminated, this would have been a dominant victory. On the other, the mistakes aren’t new and at this point seem a part of this team’s DNA. If the errors can be curbed, this team just might win it all. But can they?
The next test is Arkansas, who visits for a breakfast pig roast next weekend. We’ll see if Alabama can put a complete game together in that one.