10 takeaways: Alabama Crimson Tide beats Western Carolina, 66-3
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Here are 10 takeaways from No. 5 Alabama's 66-3 victory over Western Carolina.
1. Tua provides a spark from the sidelines
A whirlwind week concluded with a feeling of brief familiarity for Tua Tagovailoa as he entered through the tunnel onto the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium for perhaps the final time. The Alabama quarterback, who had surgery on his dislocated right hip on Monday, was carted to the Crimson Tide sideline before the game, unleashing a roar from the fans who have cheered his name relentlessly over the past three seasons.
“It means everything,” Tagovailoa told ESPN. “Whether I’m feeling good or not, just being out here kind of uplifts my spirit. I hope it does the same for them. But just being out here, being able to see football again, it’s just great. It’s a great feeling.”
The feeling was mutual as Tagovailoa’s presence provided the same effect for his team on a gloomy day in Tuscaloosa.
“I think that when a guy has a great spirit and he’s a leader, I don’t think that you just have to be a player who goes out there and plays to affect other people,” head Nick Saban said. “I think his spirit and his leadership, his standard of excellence and the example he sets is something that, even though he’s unable to play now, people have a tremendous amount of respect.”
2. Alabama’s offense can still be explosive with Mac Jones
Heading into Saturday’s game, many figured Alabama’s high-powered offense would slump with Mac Jones behind center. Despite looking impressive in his previous start against Arkansas earlier this season, the right-hander struggled to put up points against Mississippi State when he entered the game in the second half following Tagovailoa’s injury.
While Jones will face far more difficult opponents moving forward, this weekend’s dismantling of Western Carolina was a good start to quieting some of his doubters.
Jones completed 10 of 12 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns while compiling an eye-popping 358.3 passing efficiency rating. Those are the type of numbers Alabama is used to seeing under Tagovailoa, and for the most part, the Crimson Tide’s offense ran the same way as if its former starter was in the game.
Five of Jone’s 12 passes resulted in plays of 20 or more yards, including touchdowns from 57 yards and 54 yards out. While both those scores came off of shorter throws, Jones also showed a capability to deliver the ball downfield as he was 3 of 5 for 103 yards on passes that traveled 10 or more yards through the air.
3. Picking and winning
Despite limiting Western Carolina to 179 total yards, Alabama’s defense looked a bit susceptible early on. The Crimson Tide allowed the Catamounts to move into opposing territory on their opening two drives. However, a pair of interceptions from safety Xavier McKinney sent left Western Carolina empty-handed on both occasions.
McKinney’s first interception came at the 24-yard line as he stepped in front of an errant pass to stop a promising drive. Next, he corralled a deflection by cornerback Trevon Diggs at the 19-yard line before returning the ball 81 yards for a touchdown.
McKinney later forced a fumble in the second quarter which was recovered by Patrick Surtain II. Jared Mayden joined in on the fun in the third quarter, recording interceptions on back-to-back Western Carolina possessions.
In total, Alabama forced five turnovers on the day which lead to 35 points.
“I think they were all big,” Saban said. “Obviously anytime you score on defense, it’s a big thing. We practice that a lot. Everybody blocks, and I thought there were guys that got some great blocks on that. X did a great job of carrying it in. He had two picks, Jared had two picks. I think turnovers led to 35 points in the game, and our offense converted on them. That’s really good.”
4. Another multi-touchdown game for Najee Harris
Najee Harris has been making a home in the end zone. The Alabama back recorded his fifth straight multi-touchdown game Saturday, scoring on a 12-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter before running in a 3-yard score on Alabama’s opening drive after the half.
Through 11 games, Harris has piled up 17 touchdowns (10 rushing, seven receiving), second to only Tagovailoa (33 passing, two rushing). Harris' seven receiving touchdowns are a new school single-season record for most by a running back as he currently has more scores through the air than starting receiver Henry Ruggs III (6).
The star back also made history Saturday as the performance marked his third consecutive game with both a rushing and receiving touchdown. Harris is the first player SEC player to achieve that feat in the past 20 seasons.
5. Screens and shovels get the offense started
While Jones flashed his deep-ball ability at times Saturday, Alabama continued its trend of easing the quarterback into games.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian started the right-hander off with a shovel pass on the Crimson Tide’s first possession before dialing up a screen pass three plays later. Jones’ first touchdown also came on a screen as he hit Smith for a 57-yard score on his second drive. Only after that score did Alabama open up the offense for its starting quarterback.
This has been a pattern for Jones as Alabama took the same approach in his previous start against Arkansas as well as his second-half appearance against Mississippi State. So far, it’s been pretty successful.
6. 12 straight double-digit win seasons
Regardless of where Alabama's playoff chances stand, Saban has preached to his team to carry on its proud tradition by finishing the season strong. Saturday, the Crimson Tide took another step toward doing that as it recorded its 10th win. The victory marks the 12th straight year Alabama has reached the milestone, dating back to Saban’s second year with the program in 2008.
“That’s still going to be the test down the road – how we finish,” Saban said. “We’ve given ourselves the opportunity to this point. Ten wins is great, but we want to finish the right way. It’s going to be a very challenging game for us against a very good team to try to do that.
“I think consistency in performance is always what defines success, and to have that many 10-win seasons, 12 in a row, is something I’m pretty proud of and I think it’s a legacy of each of the teams was a part of accomplishing that.”
7. Defensive line answers the call
With a trio of defensive lineman — Raekwon Davis (ankle), D.J. Dale (knee) and Phidarian Mathis (undisclosed) — all missing from action, Alabama knew it would have to rely on some new faces Saturday.
Freshman Christian Barmore and senior Tevita Musika both earned their first career starts while freshmen Braylen Ingraham and Ishmael Sopsher saw extended reps.
“I think they did a pretty good job,” Saban said. "I thought that especially on the inside runs, for the most part, we did a pretty good job… I felt like we controlled the line of scrimmage pretty well. Their guys aren’t as big and physical as what we are going to face in the future, but I’m not disappointed.”
Barmore finished second on the team with six tackles, including one for a loss with .5 sacks and a quarterback hurry. Fellow freshman starter Byron Young also had a big day, finishing with five tackles including a sack.
8. Senior Day story
Following last year’s Senior Day, Saban shared a funny story about almost getting caught in a snowstorm while recruiting former Alabama offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher. Following this year’s game, the head coach delivered another amusing tale, this one involving Jared Mayden’s mother, Katrina Salles.
“Jared Mayden’s mom, when I was on the home visit with them, we had a little line-dancing contest,” Saban recalled. “I had to step through it for them. And she reminded me of that today and actually said, ‘Do you want to dance?’ I said, ‘Not today,’”
9. Taulia throws his first touchdown
Even with Tua on the sidelines, a Tagovailoa still found the end zone for Alabama. Freshman Taulia Tagovailoa recorded his first Crimson Tide touchdown on his first pass of the game as he tossed a screen pass to Smith for a 15-yard score in the third quarter.
The touchdown was one of just three passes Taulia attempted on the day as he finished 2 of 3 for 35 yards. Saturday marked the freshman’s fifth appearance of the year meaning he can no longer redshirt this season. Saban said he made the decision to burn Taulia’s redshirt after his older brother was injured against Mississippi State.
10. On to Auburn
Not long after the final whistle sounded, Alabama players were already getting asked about their upcoming game against No. 15 Auburn. The Crimson Tide will travel across the state to take on the Tigers on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT. Along with the annual bragging rights, this year’s matchup will also serve as Alabama’s final chance to impress the College Football Playoff committee as it looks to prove it is one of the top four teams in the nation.
“We’re just trying to get better for our team. We’re trying to finish off the season in the right way,” McKinney said when asked if Alabama needed to make a statement against Auburn. “We can’t control anything that the committee does or anything that they decide. So the only thing we can do is control what we can control, and that’s just playing well and trying to finish off the season the right way.”