TUSCALOOSA — If last year’s Alabama offense set the program standard for explosive scoring, this year’s is showing a more fastidious approach can be just as effective and prosperous.
A week after producing six offensive series that averaged more than 4 ½ minutes and 10 plays apiece, the second-ranked Crimson Tide (2-0) once again re-established itself under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian with a more balanced diet of steady run plays and quick-strike passes into space for what amounted to another lopsided rout in Saturday’s 62-10 win over New Mexico State inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Outside of the two one-play, 70-plus-yard touchdown runs by junior receiver Henry Ruggs II and true freshman running back Keilan Robinson, six of Alabama’s eight touchdown drives Saturday went for an average of seven and ½ plays and 70 yards and accounted for 3:13 off the clock. That included a pair of 4-minute scoring drives early in the first and third quarters that allowed the Crimson Tide to assert itself offensively at the beginning of each half.
Alabama’s answer to Ruggs’ 75-yard touchdown run on the game’s first offensive play involved a perfect example of the sort of exacting scoring drive Tide fans can expect out of Sarkisian this season.
The ensuing 10-play series began with a swing pass that junior receiver Jerry Jeudy took around the left sideline for 17 yards. Two plays later quarterback Tua Tagovailoa connected with junior DeVonta Smith on a play-action pass over the middle that Smith picked at his shoelaces and still managed to cut upfield for a 22-yard gain to cross midfield.
After some inefficient runs from junior tailback Najee Harris, Tagovailoa found Smith over the middle for 12 yards before bruising running back Brian Robinson Jr. ran twice around the left side for 11 total yards, including a 3-yard run on third-and-2 as the fullback.
It was then Tagovailoa went back to his favorite target, connecting with Jeudy for an easy 21-yard touchdown on a flag route to the right corner of the end zone to go ahead 14-0 less than 6 minutes into the game to cap a 10-play, 89-yard scoring drive that lasted more than 4 minutes (4:18).
“When you can sustain a drive, I think that’s pretty good as an offense,” Tagovailoa said after the game. “We didn’t have too much of that last year so it’s good that we have those this year so that when we get into tougher games we kind of know what it’s like to go down and actually take our time driving the ball. Taking what they defense gives us, knowing our gap schemes, with where to run, how to run it, how to block it and so forth.”
Alabama’s first offensive series of the second half also went over the 4-minute mark as the Tide worked to eat clock with a 38-0 lead coming out of the break with seven of the drive’s nine plays accounting for runs, including an 8-yard gain on a quarterback sneak from Tagovailoa on fourth-and-1 just past midfield. After a quick pass to Jeudy, Robinson Jr. ran three straight times for 27 yards before Harris powered it in from 8 yards out for a commanding 45-0 lead 6:40 into the third quarter.
The meticulous approach has certainly paid off on the scoreboard.
After another perfect showing around the red zone Saturday, the Crimson Tide is an efficient six for six with six touchdowns when they cross their opponent’s 20-yard line. That’s a marked improvement from the team’s 82 percent scoring clip in the red zone last season, with 68 percent of that accounting for touchdowns — including just one touchdown in four red zone trips in the title game loss to Clemson.
“It’s been good, because we’ve gotten good results,” Saban said. “(But) I thought today there were a couple of times we didn’t execute well. Right before we got into the red area, we had a couple of opportunities to make plays and we didn’t make them. We had people open, it was the quarterback’s read, and we just missed it. But when we got the ball in the red zone we’ve been very efficient, and I think that’s going to be very important to us.”
Despite some statistical success on the ground with 318 rushing yards Saturday — its most since a 365-yard showing in a 66-3 rout of Ole Miss in 2017 — Saban sounded uninspired by the effort from his run game for a second straight game.
“I think we still have to be able to run the ball a little more efficiently and effectively, (but) I think it was better today,” Saban said. “They did a lot of stunting, they were (using) their star a lot on five-man pressures to try to stop the run. But still, we’ve got to be able to block those things and be able to run the ball effectively.”
Nevertheless, after averaging less than 3.5 yards per carry in the opener against Duke A— which dropped to 2.6 yards per carry if a 37-yard fourth quarter touchdown is taken away — the bounce-back showing was an improvement, averaging 5.6 yards per carry even without the two 70-plus yard touchdown runs by Ruggs and Robinson (Alabama averaged 9.9 yards per carry overall Saturday).
Of course, as with any perfectionist, Saban still found room to nitpick about the second-team offense, which finished with back-to-back fourth quarter three-and-outs after the unit produced 10 points on five plays over the final 2:40 of the third quarter — including a 49-yard field goal by freshman kicker Will Reichard following a recovered fumble in New Mexico State territory.
“I think we got really sloppy at the end of the game. We played a lot of twos, and I was not pleased with the way they executed,” Saban said. “We didn’t move the ball on offense. We didn’t take the air out of (the ball) at all.
“ We didn’t take any time off the clock (late in the game), didn’t make any first downs, and the defense never stopped them for the last 10 minutes of the game. But we got to play a lot of players, so that will be good experience for them.”