OXFORD, Miss. — You know it’s a tough, draining game when even the strength and conditioning coach needed intravenous therapy afterward.
That was the scene Saturday evening after the University of Alabama found a way to survive its game at Ole Miss, 48-43—one that even head coach Nick Saban described as “wild and woolly.”
For fans, it had a little bit of everything—both bad and good—and yes, Alabama improved to 3-0 while snapping its two-game losing streak to the Rebels. But just about nothing went as expected, which has sort of become the norm when these two programs play.
“There was only one thing I was hoping for in here was a seat,” Saban said when he entered the media room. “We have coaches getting IV’d; we have players getting IV’d. But the old fellow doesn’t need an IV, because they don’t make them like they used to.
“But what a college football game.”
Saban couldn’t recall having been in one like this before, with his team falling behind 24-3 in the second quarter, then coming back and taking a 48-30 lead and nearly blowing it by giving up two touchdowns in the final three minutes.
But after going through it, he learned quite a bit about his team, including that it’s probably not deserving of the No. 1 ranking—at least not yet, not with Clemson still having Deshaun Watson and Louisville and Ohio State posting impressive wins Saturday.
Actually, Saban knew that before returning to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where the last thing Alabama wanted to do was get into a shootout with a desperate team that had already experienced a loss.
Of course, that’s exactly what happened, although it never should have gotten to that point.
You know the old college football saying about how each freshman played translates to a loss? It’s an antiquated one these days, even at Alabama. The reigning national champions have a true freshman at quarterback and numerous others making contributions this season. There were bound to be growing pains, especially in a game like this.
However, Saban also learned that this version of the Crimson Tide can play with a lot of heart and be clutch when necessary, which is something Alabama can build on.
“It was a great team win, and we needed about every guy that we had out there,” he said.
He wasn’t exaggerating.
Alabama’s players who had to be helped off the field included wide receiver ArDarius Stewart (sprained knee), senior linebacker Reuben Foster (who was on the field for the final touchdown after cramping up), sophomore cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick (head) and senior safety Eddie Jackson (shin). While that’s problematic on its own, so is the lack of depth in some spots, especially the secondary.
With junior Anthony Averett already pressed into extra service in the nickel package, Alabama’s dime formation with six defensive backs also included reserves such as Hootie Jones, true freshman Shyheim Carter and redshirt freshman Deionte Thompson during the last two Ole Miss touchdowns.
The result was Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly passing for 421 yards and running for 48 more as the Crimson Tide defense had trouble containing him despite applying numerous hard hits.
Alabama’s offense had even more issues, especially in the passing game. Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts wasn’t making quick decisions and getting the ball out of his hand as his coaches wanted, which was in part why Alabama kept stalling when trying to go sideline to sideline.
Ideally, Alabama wanted to control the clock and wear the Rebels defense down, much like Florida State did two weeks ago, and in that it was still successful. It finished with a significant advantage in time of possession (35:23 to 24:37) and had two players top 100 rushing yards: Hurts with 146 yards on 18 carries and sophomore running back Damien Harris with 144 on 16.
But it also made scores of execution mistakes, and at times Alabama’s most inexperienced players looked like they were playing in their first Southeastern Conference game.
For example, when freshman right tackle Jonah Williams slid the wrong way, it allowed defensive lineman Marquis Haynes to get a vicious shot on Hurts. The result was the fumble that defensive end John Youngblood picked up and returned 44 yards for a touchdown.
“I told somebody, I was running like the devil was chasing me,” Youngblood said.
With that touchdown, Alabama was down 24-3, tying the Crimson Tide’s biggest deficit of the Saban era (2009 Sugar Bowl vs. Utah). But it then tied for the biggest comeback in program history.
“We’re not going to give up,” Harris said of the team’s attitude.
Alabama did what good teams do: It rallied and found ways to score, with three non-offensive touchdowns. Jackson had the special teams contribution with an 85-yard punt return for a score just before halftime, followed by a three-yard fumble return by sophomore defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne and a 75-yard interception return by senior defensive end Jonathan Allen to score his first touchdown since middle school.
“I saw the guy coming [from behind] on the big screen,” Allen said of his return. “I just covered up and made sure I didn’t do anything to mess up a good play.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time, to help this team get the win tonight.”
But the great teams don’t allow their opponents to score so quick and mount a near comeback in the closing minutes. The Crimson Tide have the potential to be great this season, but there is much to be improved on.
Perhaps Alabama had previously been watching itself on television a little too much and reading too many of its headlines during training camp and its first couple of games. Granted it posted wins of 52-6 over No. 20 USC and 38-10 against Western Kentucky, but neither the coach nor players felt like the Crimson Tide played particularly well.
This one wasn’t overly impressive either, which was why everyone on the Alabama sideline was still shaking his head when the offense had 3rd-and-1 with 50 seconds remaining and the outcome still in doubt. With Harris hobbled, replacement Bo Scarbrough had just fumbled when trying to get the first down that would allow the Crimson Tide to take a knee.
Alabama had outscored Ole Miss 45-6 through one stretch, yet strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, pre-IV, kept rubbing head trainer Jeff Allen’s head for good luck, and some of the defensive players tried not to watch as the level of concern was nothing short of palpable. But following Alabama’s fumble recovery, Harris came back into the game and got the necessary yard on a second effort.
“That was nothing but tenacity,” Saban said.
It was also barely enough, which will catch up to Alabama if it doesn’t continue to make major strides.
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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