Well into the week of preparation for the University of Alabama’s first SEC West game, coach Nick Saban was not above acknowledging what he did not know.
As of Wednesday night, Saban did not know what Ole Miss would do offensively if it was forced to turn to its backup quarterback, freshman John Rhys Plumlee, for a full game. It took all of seven plays to find the answer: runs, in every way possible.
Plumlee ultimately ran 25 times for 109 yards and a touchdown — compared to 31 carries for 170 yards by all other Rebels combined. Plumlee’s running played a big role in Ole Miss holding a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter, but UA adjusted to it well enough for a 59-31 win.
In those first seven plays, Plumlee ran four times for 28 yards. As the game progressed, Ole Miss showed a willingness to use Plumlee on all kinds of quarterback run concepts, including several types of quarterback draws and quarterback powers, where Plumlee was given a pulling guard as a lead blocker.
Ole Miss also varied its quarterback draw concepts: it used motion from the backfield to create more room, and once had two running backs on the same side of Plumlee, then sent both on routes to draw linebackers away.
“It’s definitely something we worked in practice, but I feel like it’s a lack of tackling,” senior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis said. “Our focus was off on this game. We definitely practiced on the QB draws and the schemes they were doing. We did all that.
“It was just execution. It was on us. We did a lot of things that hurt ourselves.”
In the game’s later stages — as Ole Miss compiled 21 second-half points on 324 yards — Saban didn’t view the designed runs as the problem.
“I think the biggest issue was, we adjusted to some of the quarterback runs they were running OK; I think where he hurt us worse was we rush five guys and we lost contain,” Saban said. “There were several times where he ran on third down where if we had the guy contained, we had good pressure in the pocket and somebody just didn’t contain the quarterback like they needed to, and that extended drives for them. I think that’s really critical, when we don’t execute on third down, when people don’t keep contain on a quarterback — especially one that can run like this guy can run. He is very, very fast.”
Plumlee averaged 4.6 yards per carry on third downs, only slightly better than his 4.4 for the game overall, but six of his 10 third-down runs went for a first down.
“We didn’t contain like we were supposed to,” outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings said. “Sometimes he got outside of us and that’s poor on us. We got to go to the drawing board, get to work on it and fix it.
“He was able to extend plays. Give him his props.”
Saban said he noticed a similar theme from the South Carolina game: the use of empty formations and quads, where four wide receivers are on one side of the formation, which can be used for multiple reasons. South Carolina primarily used it as a way to create quick, short passes; Ole Miss used it to create ways for Plumlee to run.
Safety Xavier McKinney was quick to give the clearly athletic Plumlee credit for his physical skills, but also saw ways in which UA could better adapt to those tricks from opposing offenses. Saban used a portion of his postgame press conference to emphasize UA’s need to approach the upcoming open week as an opportunity for improvement, as opposed to a time for a break; McKinney knows one area that needs work.
“I feel like the communication wasn’t great at times and that’s why he was scrambling,” McKinney said, “because we had got the wrong call or echoed the wrong call and everybody wasn’t on the same page.”