COLUMBIA, S.C. — Three games of watching the nation’s fifth-best offense by yards per play (8.14) has given Alabama football coach Nick Saban cognitive dissonance.
“We need to have more balance on offense,” Saban said, shortly after his No. 2 Crimson Tide (3-0, 1-0 SEC) hung 571 yards of offense on South Carolina, but only 79 on the ground. He then outlined his reasons for enjoying his prolific passing game, having earlier given some reasons why he wants to have more run game in his offense.
Forty-five seconds after his plea for balance, Saban said, “If it’s not broke don’t fix it. We’re making it work and we’re moving the ball, we’re making plays. Why change?”
The role of the run game in the future of Alabama’s offense is a complicated one, even for those including Saban, the ones involved in deploying it. UA did just win a SEC game 47-23 despite taking nearly all of the first half to get the running backs partially involved in its offense. Three games of data shows UA doesn’t need to run well to win and win big, but Saban wants to see the run game announce its presence for the games he believes lie ahead.
“It’s great that we’re a good passing team, I’m happy with that and I think we’re doing a good job of featuring some of the best talent on our team. But I also think, from a team standpoint, we need to be able to run the ball effectively as well,” Saban said. “I don’t think you can totally depend on that: last year, we got to where we were so good at that we didn’t do other things well and when we played really good teams at the end, you couldn’t do enough other things to be effective.”
Saban also pointed to a high snap count for the defense — South Carolina ran 86 plays — as another reason for UA to find more in its run game. He believes the defense wore down in the late stages of the game, as the Gamecocks scored 10 fourth-quarter points, thanks to that workload, which he thinks could have been decreased had UA ran the ball more efficiently and more often.
“We don’t have enough players to get through a season playing 86 plays of defense every week,” Saban said. “But the defense has to get off the field. We had opportunities to get off the field on third down, we had way too many penalties in the game.”
But this is where the exact role of that run game gets complicated. The fact that Alabama was so one-sided — it was the first time UA threw on 60 percent of its plays in a game since 2014 against LSU — was not necessarily by design.
“And a lot of the plays we ran today are called runs or RPOs and we end up passing because they’re playing six guys in the box. It’s not the play call as much as it is the design of what we’re doing,” Saban said. “Probably half the passes today were run-pass options, RPOs. They’re playing six guys in the box, and those are all reads to throw. That’s the deal. I’m not apologizing for that, because we continue to make plays.”
Najee Harris sees it simply: opposing defenses have to pick their poison, and they choose to stop the run game.
“The running game is there, people just stop the run first,” Harris said. “This is college, people stop the run first; if you don’t stop the run first, the game’s going to be over before it starts. Obviously we have good receivers so it’s hard to stop us in general, but some teams are going to stop the pass and let us run, some teams are going to stop the run and let us pass.
“You can make it seem like we can’t run the ball, but everybody’s stopping the run first.”
Maybe that changes in the future, since UA is now top 10 nationally in completion percentage (75.9), yards per attempt (10.6) and quarterback rating (204.86). If defenses continue to choose to take away the run, maybe Saban and staff find ways to run anyway, in hopes of saving its defense and planning for the future.
While the Crimson Tide awaits those answers, it is living in a new era: Saturday broke UA’s 69-game streak of 100-yard rushing games.