The most unexpected move in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday came when 250-pound Irv Smith Jr. caught a Tua Tagovailoa pass over the middle, turned a pirouette like the world’s biggest ballerina and left befuddled defenders in his wake on the way to a 68-yard score.
The second most surprising move? That was in the post-game press conference, where Nick Saban did not come through the door bearing a flaming ax and blowing loudly on a tin horn.
If anything, the first-half struggles against a spunky Citadel team probably did more to vindicate Saban than incite him. Nearly every scenario he painted in the week leading up to Alabama’s “11th week break” unfolded on the field. Tagovailoa was needed longer than anyone expected.
Alabama’s defense did have some trouble with The Citadel’s flexbone offense between having to identify the point of attack (which kept shifting), remember its assignment and avoid some potential knee-capping cut blocks. Alabama survived all that, although Saban clearly didn’t like all the cutting including one that took safety Deionte Thompson out of the game (and seemed a good 10 yards downfield.) Some late personal foul calls against Alabama were probably of the retaliatory “enough is enough” variety.
Saban didn’t rant and rave, though. He acknowledged the slow start and took responsibility for it but seemed anxious to use it for teaching purposes.
“You really go out there to play to be the best player you can be,” Saban said. “You don’t look for an external factor like who you’re playing against. It’s really not about winning or losing. It’s about trying to be the best player.”
The first half was sluggish for Alabama but, like a junior high Halloween haunted house, it wasn’t exactly scary because you knew things would be fine, if you were an Alabama fan, once you reached the exit. Only the most skittish (or the most hoping-against-hope national commentators) expected an upset at halftime. One possession, one turnover and that was it for The Citadel. The dam burst in three or four places.
Tagovailoa, who seemed more spry without his knee brace, was more or less picking and choosing his receivers in the second half. The running game seemed to sputter at times although the absence of both starting guards, Deonte Brown and Alex Leatherwood (who missed much of the second half with an ankle sprain) didn’t help.
There are, of course, no Citadels remaining on the schedule. That was Saban’s underlying message. He’s not concerned Auburn is going to come out running the triple option. But he knows Auburn is capable of causing real trouble if Alabama doesn’t prepare well.
Then comes Georgia, an additional game in front of a hostile crowd against a team that has playoff aspirations of its own. Alabama’s hopes would probably survive a loss to AU, although a second straight defeat in the rivalry would be bitter venom for UA fans.
At the moment, Alabama 2018 looks similar to Alabama 2017, which was a weary and bruised team, psychologically straining under high expectations. That’s not a prediction — the next game is not against a peaking Auburn team at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It’s just an observation.
The stinging lash from Saban might be motivational in the short run. This is not a sprint.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.