Will Alabama football have to play different offensive style vs Ohio State like vs Notre Dame?

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Alabama football entered Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinal fifth in the nation in yards per game and fourth in plays of 10 yards or more. The correlation is clear: By exploding for big gains as frequently as it does, the Crimson Tide amass chunks of yards and points at rates most other offenses can’t match.

Opponents have noticed, and in some drastic cases, they’ve sold out to contain those explosive plays. It has been enough to bring the production back to reality, but not enough to win.

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Notre Dame was the latest to try it and did so with some success, holding Alabama to five passes of 20 yards or more, well below the season average of 14.2. UA found a way to produce enough to win 31-14 and push on to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

Rose Bowl: Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) runs the ball against Notre Dame at AT&T Stadium.

“I think when people play us that way, you got to take what the defense gives,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “(Quarterback) Mac (Jones) threw a couple checkdowns tonight, which become catch-and-run plays for you. They're not the big-time explosive plays we sometimes make, but they do keep the chains moving.”

Arkansas was the first to dedicate to this strategy, playing a soft zone that sometimes dropped as many as eight defenders in pass coverage. Alabama still scored 52 points on the Razorbacks, but wide receiver DeVonta Smith was limited to just three catches for 22 yards. Alabama had to resort to other pass catchers for its production.

Against Notre Dame, it was a similar story. Smith was a bigger part of the offense this time — seven catches for 130 yards and three touchdowns — but between Jahleel Billingsley and Miller Forristall, Alabama turned to tight ends for seven catches for 70 yards and a touchdown. Running back Najee Harris was targeted with six passes, catching four of them for 30 yards. John Metchie III had three catches for 53 yards and Slade Bolden had two for 22.

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Facing defenses designed this way has forced UA to adopt a different style of winning. The Notre Dame and Arkansas games are on the list of just four games this season with fewer than 300 passing yards. Saban does not see that as a bad thing.

“I think you have to be able to play every style,” Saban said. “I think that if people get a bead on you in terms of what is successful against you, you don't have answers for it, then everybody's going to do it and they're going to take a lot of things away.”

The one detriment in the most recent instance was the reduced point total, with the 31 points breaking a 24-game streak of scoring at least 35 in every game. UA is likely to need every point it can get against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, given the Buckeyes’ most recent performance — 49 points against Clemson — and overall offensive excellence, entering Friday in the top 10 nationally in yards per play allowed.

In one aspect, UA looked at itself as a limiting factor for its latest scoring total, and sees it as something easy to correct.

“I mean, we kind of protected the lead a little bit,” Jones said. “Obviously we have to do a better job of just playing the plays, not look at the scoreboard.

"But really that starts with me. Stay aggressive, do what the offensive coordinator (Steve Sarkisian) tells us to do.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson