1. The Alabama line was ready
In Thursday's Alabama-A&M preview, I mentioned that the Alabama offensive line was facing more questions than it was used to facing after a lackluster performance versus Virginia Tech.
Granted, it was one game, and it came against a potentially elite Virginia Tech defense, but the Alabama line was a disaster in Atlanta. In 2012, Alabama's Stuff Rate (the percentage of run plays stopped behind the line) was 12.6 percent, the second-lowest average in the country; against Virginia Tech, it was 35.3 percent. Twelve of Alabama's 34 run attempts ended in the backfield. T.J. Yeldon found room to run on the outside -- his six carries to to the edge of the defense gained 53 yards -- but he found almost nothing between the tackles, gaining just 22 yards in 11 carries. One of his edge runs was an improvisation after he found no room in the middle.
This had repercussions. Not only was Alabama facing more second- or third-and-longs than it was accustomed to facing, but the ground failures completely hindered the Tide's deadly play-action game. On play-action passes on August 31, quarterback A.J. McCarron was just 2-for-6 for nine yards and was sacked twice for 12 yards. That's eight play-action attempts and a net gain of negative-three yards. Remember all of those pretty bombs to Amari Cooper last year? They're harder to pull off on third-and-long, and they're impossible to pull off if McCarron is on his back.
Remember when T.J. Yeldon was stuffed in the backfield near the A&M goal line in the fourth quarter and fumbled? Yeah, that was Texas A&M's only play in the backfield all game. One tackle for loss in 36 rushes is a stuff rate of 2.8 percent. Combine that with the fact that A&M was officially credited with one quarterback hurry and no sacks in 29 McCarron pass attempts, and you've got one of the stories of the game: complete and total domination by the Alabama offensive line.
It was fair to wonder if Alabama itself wasn't completely sure about the line heading into the game. A&M clearly wanted to force Bama to the air, stacking as many as eight defenders in the box with regularity. Thanks to that and, possibly, the early 14-0 deficit, Alabama responded by barely even trying to run the ball early in the game. Almost 20 minutes into the game, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier had called only two standard-downs rushes; they had gone for 22 yards even with extra players in the box, but Bama continued to lean on the pass until it got the lead.
But once the lead came, following a 51-yard catch-and-run by Kenny Bell, the Tide went to the ground game and pounded out Alabama-with-the-lead drives. Late in the first half, they went 93 yards in 11 plays (eight rushes) and ate up over six minutes of clock in taking a 28-14 lead. With the score 35-21 in the third quarter, they drove 83 yards in 10 plays (seven rushes) and 5:17 to make it 42-21. Up 42-28 in the fourth quarter, they went 71 yards in eight plays and 4:38, and the last seven were Yeldon rushes.
When Yeldon fumbled and Johnny Manziel hit Mike Evans for a 95-yard bomb to cut the Alabama lead to seven, the Tide calmly drove 65 yards in nine plays (seven rushes and a perfect play-action touchdown on third-and-goal) and 5:36 to all but ice the game away.
When Alabama had to run, it did so with aplomb. The Tide looked like the Tide, in other words.
2. A&M doesn't fear the long ball
The other piece of my Thursday preview centered on how aggressive Alabama might be against the A&M offense, whether that would open up the deeper passing game for Manziel and company, and whether Manziel would be able to take consistent advantage. Turns out, that was part of the A&M plan.
On the second and fourth plays of the game, Manziel found Evans for lobs of 30-plus yards to set up the first touchdown, then found him again for 34 yards to set up the second. Alabama corner John Fulton just couldn't keep Evans from getting positioned down the sideline, and the big Evans was fast enough that Fulton was scrambling to catch up and couldn't look back for the ball. It was the perfect counter for a defense trying to contain Manziel's legs, and when Manziel went back to the well in the fourth quarter, it worked again for a 95-yard touchdown.
For the game, Manziel passes to Evans went 7-for-9 for 297 yards and a touchdown. That would even be ridiculously good against Alabama State.
3. It wasn't all Johnny
It was starting to annoy me after a while. Manziel's lobs to Evans were well-thrown, to be sure, but they were still the easy part. Evans' positioning and hands were impeccable, and it felt unfair that the general reaction following Evans' receptions, especially online, was basically "Johnny Football! Amazing!!!" That this was the go-to reaction after Evans caught the fourth-quarter lob, stiff-armed his defender, and outran safety help to the end zone was particularly frustrating. Evans was quite possibly the best player on the field on Saturday, considering his position, and you don't gain 628 yards on Alabama with just a good quarterback.
(That, and the signature play of the first half -- Manziel's greased-pig mini-Hail Mary -- was one of the dumbest plays I've ever seen from Manziel. He owed Edward Pope a steak dinner for bailing him out on that one. And he also owed karma, which would find its retribution when he overthrew a fade route at the goal line, and it was picked off by Cyrus Jones.)
4. It was all Johnny
Okay, so Manziel got a little too much credit for his passing success. He also gets some major slack for the fact that he was the entire A&M running game. As with last year's game in Tuscaloosa, Aggie running backs just couldn't find any room against the Alabama front. Ben Malena, Tra Carson, and Brandon Williams combined to gain just 66 yards in 18 carries (longest run: nine yards); their four receptions went for just 26 yards, as well.
To open up the passing game, A&M needed at least a little bit of success on the ground, and the Aggies had no choice but to keep the ball in Manziel's hands. And the QB counters A&M was utilizing early in the contest were things of beauty. It was the only thing that could consistently work against a front seven this big and this fast. Attempt to flat-foot them a bit by setting up a zone read with momentum moving with the running backs, pull a linemen the other direction, and have Manziel run as fast as he could toward the other sideline.
Of Manziel's first six carries of the first quarter, five went for at least seven yards, and three went for at least 11. He rushed for 51 yards in A&M's first three drives. Though he rushed for only another 52 (not including a sack) in the final three quarters, and though his work rate was enormous for those yards -- he usually had to go a long way horizontally before going vertical -- he was all A&M had, and he was brilliant.
5. Alabama corners are indeed the weak spot for this defense.
It was really the only question mark for Saban's famed defense heading into 2013. Yes, the Tide had to replace nose guard/immovable object Jesse Williams up front, and yes, there was some shuffling at defensive end as well following the departures of Damion Square and Quinton Dial. But it was difficult to worry too much about the Alabama line, especially when players like Jeoffrey Pagan were just waiting their turn.
But following the departure of corner Dee Milliner, now a New York Jet, Alabama didn't have a clear, next-in-line successor ready. Senior Deion Belue had his moments against No. 2 receivers last year (6.5 tackles for loss, nine passes defensed), but senior John Fulton was a career backup, and sophomore Cyrus Jones spent his freshman season as a wide receiver. Matching Fulton up against Evans very much did not work, Belue was lost for the game with a second-quarter toe injury, and Evans went long again on Jones in the fourth quarter.
This was an incredibly awkward matchup for Alabama, one that might not be replicated the rest of the year. Ole Miss will spread you out and test your secondary depth, but Bo Wallace is not going to beat you to the corner like Manziel. And LSU has two star receivers and a big-armed quarterback (not to mention an LSU running game), but Zach Mettenberger isn't mobile, and there really isn't a third option in the receiving corps.
To put it another way, the Alabama defense should look like the Alabama defense again for most of the rest of the season.
6. Nick Saban is showing serious faith in T.J. Yeldon
T.J. Yeldon has fumbled four times in his 217 career carries to date. Fumbles are great for drawing small-sample conclusions, but fumbling once for every 54 carries or so is certainly a bit on the high side. Considering the timing of the fumbles, however, ball security feels like a major issue for the sophomore. Nobody cared that he suffered a fumble against Florida Atlantic last season (one that Alabama recovered, no less), but his other three were all in the late stages of big games.
He fumbled at the LSU 13 with a minute left in the third quarter and Alabama nursing a 14-10 lead. Instead of kicking a field goal to go up seven, the Tide found themselves down by three after a 7-play, 90-yard LSU touchdown drive.
He fumbled at the Texas A&M 30 with nine minutes left and Alabama down 23-17. McCarron had just completed a 50-yard bomb to Amari Cooper, and it seemed like the Tide's inevitable comeback was just about complete. But Yeldon fumbled, and Manziel threw a touchdown pass to Malcome Kennedy two plays later.
And he fumbled at the A&M 1 with 8:42 left and Alabama up 42-28. A score would have iced the game, but Yeldon, perhaps gassed after six straight carries, was lit up by Steven Jenkins and company and left the ball on the ground. Three plays later, it was 42-35.
At this stage, it was fair to assume that Nick Saban would dip into his bench and perhaps lean on Kenyan Drake or Jalston Fowler instead of Yeldon, but he didn't. Instead, Alabama's next drive began with Yeldon runs of 13 and 11 yards. Saban showed major trust in Yeldon following the third killer miscue of the sophomore's career, and it paid off.
7. O.J. Howard might be really, really good
A five-star freshman from Prattville, Alabama, Howard already looks the part. He stands 6'6, 237, he looks like Ozzie Newsome 2.0, and in his first big game (of many) in the crimson and white, he came up big. He caught a 15-yard pass on second-and-10 to set up a flea-flicker touchdown to DeAndrew White, he caught a 27-yard pass on second-and-8 to set up Kenny Bell's go-ahead score, and following Yeldon's two big runs on the game-icing drive, he caught a gorgeous, 26-yard touch pass from McCarron on second-and-15 from the A&M 26.
If teams are going to try their hardest to take Amari Cooper (six targets, two catches, 34 yards) out of the game -- and so far, they have -- McCarron will need somewhere reliable to go on passing downs. In just his second college game, Howard was that go-to guy on multiple occasions, and it paid off beautifully.
8. Alabama is old-school and pro-style even in its trick plays.
Throwback passes? Triple reverses? Trips right and left? Oopty-oop? Pssh. You can keep all of your funky trick plays. Nick Saban will take his old-school flea-flicker and beat you to death with it, thank you very much.
9. Virginia Tech's defense might be really, really good
Obviously Texas A&M's defense has some issues, especially in the front seven. We knew that coming into the game, and it was brutally reinforced for most of four quarters. But in light of what Alabama accomplished in the face of a hostile crowd, in an enormous game on Saturday -- 29 pass attempts for 334 yards, 36 running back carries for 236 yards -- it's jarring to look back at the Tide's stats against Virginia Tech: 28 pass attempts (inc. sacks) for 87 yards, 34 running back carries for 119 yards. Sure, Alabama had a big lead thanks to return touchdowns and probably kept things pretty vanilla. But goodness, do those stats reflect pretty well on Virginia Tech right now.
10. This is what we want football to be
This football game was high-flying and ground-based. It had no-huddle (from both teams!) and slow-it-down. It featured big plays galore on offense and at least a pair of enormous defensive plays (Jenkins' goal line stuff of Yeldon, Vinnie Sunseri's long interception return). It was aggressive and conservative, dynamic and predictable, fast and slow. It was exactly what we want football to be. We saw the past, present, and future of college football converging at once, and it was a hell of a show.
And the winner is still the champion.