Alabama's Slade Bolden answers the call, provides offensive spark as Wildcat QB against UT
TUSCALOOSA — Without the services of its starting quarterback in the second half Saturday, Alabama reached into its dusty bag of tricks to find the end zone.
Sure, sophomore backup Mac Jones was effective at times, completing 6 of 11 passes for 72 yards in relief of an injured Tua Tagovailoa, who missed the final 36 minutes of Saturday’s 35-13 win over rival Tennessee after suffering a high ankle sprain midway through the second quarter.
But when the top-ranked Crimson Tide (7-0, 4-0 SEC) needed a spark offensively with Tagovailoa in the locker room, it turned to redshirt freshman receiver and occasional Wildcat quarterback Slade Bolden to get into the end zone for the team’s only offensive score of the second half.
And Bolden did just what he was supposed to, passing out of the Wildcat formation for the first time all season when he found junior tight end Miller Forristall uncovered in middle of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown to go ahead 28-13 with 4:55 remaining in the third quarter.
“Of course I wanted to throw it, I’m a quarterback at heart,” the former prep quarterback from West Monroe, Louisiana, said after the game. “I was a quarterback in high school, so I always want to throw the ball when I get a chance to.”
It wasn’t the first play Bolden has been called upon to take a snap this season, though the other handful of times resulted in a run play, usually a handoff to the running back or speedy receiver Jaylen Waddle on a reverse.
But locked into a second-and-goal situation and needing a score in the worst way, first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian gave his young multi-purpose weapon an opportunity to provide a spark.
“We practiced it all week, and it’s one of those plays you hope to run. So, when the timing is right, it happens to get called. I’m just glad everybody executed up front,” Bolden said. “The linemen did a great job and Miller (Forristall) made a good catch. The play just worked out perfectly. I loved celebrating with my teammates. It was just a great experience overall.”
It also served as an emotional lift for a high-powered Alabama offense that was struggling with consistency without its leader running the show.
“That was really cool to see. I loved that,” said junior left tackle Alex Leatherwood, who added that Bolden has yet to throw an incompletion when the team runs that Wildcat play in practice. “Slade’s a great athlete and just seeing him complete a pass that big was pretty cool.”
Bolden’s touchdown was only the second completed pass on the 10-play scoring drive that set it up, as Alabama relied heavily on junior running back Najee Harris and the ground game with Tagovailoa out. After a third-down roughing penalty gave the Tide new life, Harris ran on five of the next six plays for 38 yards before getting stuffed for a 1-yard loss on first-and-goal from the 5.
Without the strong-armed Tagovailoa available and looking to control the clock with a tenuous one-touchdown advantage midway through the second half, Alabama’s offense reverted back to the run-centered approach that has carried the team throughout much of head coach Nick Saban’s tenure.
Following Tagovailoa’s injury, junior tailback Najee Harris combined for 96 of his 153 total yards on 14 of his 25 combined touches, including running 12 times for 71 of his 105 rushing yards over the next 16 minutes of game action before Bolden’s pass out of the Wildcat helped keep Tennessee at bay.
From there, Alabama closed out the game on the ground, running on 10 of its final 11 offensive plays for 41 yards, including six carries from junior running back Brian Robinson Jr. for 31 of his 40 rushing yards on the evening. Robinson also added a 9-yard touchdown run to go ahead 14-7 with 1:35 remaining in the first quarter.
“They leaned on us a little extra today, we kind of expected that once Tua went down,” Robinson said after the game. “We just picked him up, like, ‘we got you.’ We knew we were going to focus heavy on the running game. So me and Najee came together and were like, ‘we’ve got to take over,’ just do what we had to do in the running game and keep battling.”
Tagovailoa is expected to miss next week’s game against Arkansas but could be available following the team’s second bye week after that with most anticipating his return for a potential top-three matchup against SEC West LSU on Nov. 9.
In the meantime, Jones will make his first career start next Saturday. That advance knowledge should allow Sarkisian more considerable time to develop a suitable offensive game plan to help Jones be more well-equipped to succeed against the struggling Razorbacks (2-5, 0-4 SEC).
“When he came in he was just a little nervous and we had to pick him up,” Robinson said of Jones. “The more he played, he got a little more comfortable in the game and started to make plays. We’ve just got to keep him up, keep him motivated so he can come out stronger next week.”
Of course, if called upon, Bolden made it clear with his play Saturday that he’s capable of doing whatever his team needs of him in that moment.
“I’m staying patient and humble, so whenever my number is called, I’ll make the play,” Bolden said.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser sports reporter Alex Byington at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @_AlexByington.