TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — To say there was discord on the University of Alabama sideline near the end of Saturday’s game at Bryant-Denny Stadium would be an understatement.
Even though it didn’t show up on the scoreboard, for the second straight week, Nick Saban’s team didn’t play well, and this time he wasn’t going to hold back. That he was feverishly yelling late in the game was nothing new, but a lot of it was directed at one person in particular, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
“Those aren’t arguments,” he clarified. “Those are ass-chewings.”
That’s what the Alabama players have to look forward to during the weeklong buildup to its Southeastern Conference opener at Ole Miss.
Yes, it did demolish Western Kentucky during the home opener, 38-10. But no, this wasn’t a performance to be proud of. The offense played better in the second half, with touchdown drives of 48, 76 and 59 yards, yet Alabama struggled with the running game, and the passing game was sporadic.
That’s putting it mildly, and it didn’t matter that the Hilltoppers (1-1) made stopping the run a top priority.
“A lot of people are disappointed, embarrassed that we didn’t perform,” senior linebacker Ryan Anderson said about the postgame locker room. “As a team, we felt like we let each other down.”
Junior offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman described Saban as being “pretty ticked off,” and that didn’t change by the time he took the podium in the media room.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been this disappointed after winning a game maybe ever,” Saban said.
While No. 1 Alabama’s arrogance caught up to it—as Saban disclosed that the reigning national champions hadn’t practiced well since crushing USC 52-6 a week ago in Arlington, Texas—so did its lack of offensive identity.
Is it still a smashmouth team or an option-read offense? If a game were on the line, who would be the guy it would try to get the ball to, and how? If it’s a run, who would be the lineman it wanted to run behind?
Last year, that was Derrick Henry behind Cam Robinson, but the left side of the offensive line hasn’t been the same so far. Then again, neither has the right. That’s not uncommon when there’s essentially new faces at every place except left tackle, but perhaps too much was asked of Ross Pierschbacher, who was pulled at one point.
He was at left guard last year, spent the spring and summer at center and then moved to right guard at the end of training camp. While everyone’s been focused on the quarterback competition between Jalen Hurts and Blake Barnett, the line has yet to settle on its starting five, in part due to right guard Alphonse Taylor’s suspension for the opener.
Granted, having such a diverse attack with different quarterbacks, a lot of playmakers and exchangeable linemen can be difficult to game-plan against. The flip side to that is that it’s tougher on the offense.
What Alabama needs is stability—and fast.
Instead, it has this on Saturday: “We had way too many penalties offensively, and way too many inconsistencies,” Saban said. “Too many penalties, too many times shooting ourselves in the foot getting behind on down and distance. We dropped some big plays and got a big play called back. We got a 70-yard play called back for holding.
“We just need to execute a lot better on offense.”
When asked about Alabama’s offensive identity, Bozeman simply said, “I don’t have an answer to that,” and sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley could only offer: “Play fast, score points and help the defense.”
That’s a far cry from previous statements Alabama players have made, like about wanting to make the opposition quit and focusing on finishing.
Overall, the Crimson Tide tallied just 124 rushing yards against Western Kentucky, most after the game’s outcome had been decided, and sophomore Damien Harris led the ground game with 45 rushing yards on 11 carries.
But subtract his two big runs against USC last week, for 46 and 73 yards, and Alabama is averaging just 3.01 yards per rushing attempt this season. At halftime Saturday, Western Kentucky was outgaining it on the ground, 37-13.
“That’s embarrassing,” Bozeman said.
While Hurts played most of the game, becoming the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Alabama since Vince Sutton in 1984, the offense was mostly hit or miss. Statistically, he did fine, completing 23 of 36 passes for 287 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers, but it’s all the other things that killed drives that are keeping coaches from naming him the starter.
For example, at different times in the first half Alabama, had third down and 32 yards to go, 3rd-and-24 and 3rd-and-15. After Barnett got his chance, with two possessions totaling 37 yards, Hurts opened the second half with a 14-play drive that resulted in no points.
“We just need to do a lot of improving, and I’m focused on what we need to do to improve rather than who’s going to be the quarterback right now,” Saban said about the ongoing competition. “Whoever it is, they need to improve.”
Yet there’s plenty of blame to be shared by every offensive player not named Ridley, who had nine receptions for 129 yards and one touchdown, or wide receiver ArDarius Stewart, who had five catches for 90 yards and a score. Also, the defense played lights-out, with safety Eddie Jackson returning an interception for a touchdown and defensive end Jonathan Allen again leading the fierce pass rush.
That holding call Saban was talking about was credited to sophomore Lester Cotton, a first-year starter at left guard. Near the end of the game, wide receiver Robert Foster went in motion and had the snap hit him (and one has to wonder why that play was called when trying to run out the clock), leading to the Hilltoppers’ only touchdown of the day.
Those are the kinds of things that will drive Saban nuts. Plus, his team just provided a defensive blueprint for every other opponent: Focus on the run and ramp up the pressure on the young quarterbacks.
A lot will be written and said this week about which Alabama team is the real one: the one that crushed USC—which annihilated Utah State on Saturday, 45-7—or the one that played without urgency and didn’t give attention to detail.
In some ways, this is perfect for Saban, who gets both a big win and to deliver a wake-up call to the Crimson Tide just before playing the division team that’s defeated Alabama twice in a row. He’s also been here before, as Alabama was similarly flat against Tulane in 2008 (a 20-6 win) and Colorado State in 2013 (a 31-6 win).
Both times it came back strong, and to do so again, the coaching staff will have to make some tough decisions in addition to figuring what kind of offense it wants to have. Ole Miss isn’t just a big test, it might end up being “the” test of the regular season.
Saban knows that how the team responds will go a long way in determining where it ends up.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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