The University of Alabama had all the pieces to be an excellent first-down passing team, and added one important piece that could make it better. The first seven games of the season have not disappointed.
The numbers from last season and the addition of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, with a track record of effective first-down passing, suggested No. 1 UA should have no problem moving the chains when it chooses to throw on first down. It may look different this week, with Tua Tagovailoa out for the game Arkansas game Saturday, but for the course of the season, UA has been one of the nation’s best first-down passing units.
“Well, drives really are dependent on what you do on first and second down because third downs are usually the hardest,” Tagovailoa said last week. “It’s whatever they are seeing. The plays we are given, we’ve got to execute regardless.”
Last year, Alabama was eighth in the nation in getting a first down on 38.07 percent of its first-down passing attempts, and Tagovailoa was among the nation’s best passers on first down by quarterback rating and explosive plays. The same is true this season, in some cases to a greater degree.
Currently, UA moves the chains on 40.74 percent of its first-down passes, eighth in the nation among those that have thrown on first down at least 60 times. Only 17 teams have more first-down pass attempts than Alabama (108), yet UA completes 72.2 percent of them (14th nationally) and Tagovailoa’s first-down quarterback rating of 198.93 is sixth among quarterbacks with at least 60 first-down attempts.
To this point, UA has been one of the nation’s more pass-happy teams on first downs. With 108 passes to 117 runs, its first down pass percentage is 48 percent, 22nd in the nation: higher than USC, with noted Air Raid offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, and higher than other play callers with Air Raid backgrounds including North Texas head coach Seth Littrell and Troy head coach Chip Lindsey.
Tagovailoa doesn’t see that playcalling record as indicative of the system.
“I mean, I think it’s based on what the guys upstairs see,” he said. “You know, they communicate to him what they’ve been seeing on first and second down, and I think that’s how he goes about making his play calls.”
It’s easy to take to the pass on first down when it not only moves the chains 40 percent of the time, but does much more than that consistently. Of its 24 passes of 25 or more yards, 10 of them came on first down.
The fact that UA has run on first down as much as it has can be attributed to Saban’s often stated desire to control the game with longer offensive possessions. As Tagovailoa put it, “We kind of understand what he’s asking of us. That’s when we end up running the ball, maybe first, second down.”
But when the offense is given freedom to operate at its peak, that often means throwing — and throwing for big gains — on first down.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson