Alabama football got physical against Ole Miss, but is joyless murderball back for good? | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Everyone came into the Alabama football game against Ole Miss on Saturday expecting to see 2020. Instead, they got 2012.

Alabama looked like its old self in a 42-21 win over the Rebels. That’s its old old self, not its new old self that would harken back to the DeVonta Smith/Ruggs/Waddle/Jeudy/Najee days. Brian Robinson Jr. carried 36 times, most on tough, physical runs. Robinson noted that he had not carried the ball so often even in his days at Hillcrest High School. That was not quite a Derrick Henry workload under the Saban/Kiffin regime at UA, but it’s hard to beat the King. 

That doesn’t mean Alabama is turning back the clock. UA coach Nick Saban said running the ball was the best way to win this game but might not necessarily be the best for the Crimson Tide in the future. He noted that it’s “hard to throw the ball when they are dropping eight (defenders) back into coverage, although I thought Bryce (Young, the Alabama quarterback) did a good job of handling that.”

Oct 2, 2021; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA;  Ole Miss running back Jerrion Ealy (9) is stopped by Alabama lineman Tim Smith (50), linebacker Henry To'o To'o (10) and linebacker Will Anderson, Jr., (31) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

If there was one area where Saban wouldn’t mind stepping back to a less offensive time, it was the defense. There were some late points, and Saban doesn’t just shake those off like water from a duck’s back, but the argument can be made that, relative to expectations, it was as strong a performance as Alabama has posted in three years. Take every other statistic out of the game and you are left with this: Ole Miss had 647 yards against Pete Golding’s defense last season and less than half of that (291) Saturday. 

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The first-half defensive play was so strong that it was hard to single out one player, although Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin did throw at least two or three accolades at Will Anderson Jr. and his disappointment that Anderson cannot immediately declare for the NFL Draft. 

Saban was clearly pleased but spread his praise around. He also noted defensive simplification as a factor. 

“We played the whole game in the same personnel group, so we didn't get into all this substitution stuff that was a problem for us last year,” he said.

Young didn’t have any Heisman-making moments, except the win, but he also isn’t going to relinquish his frontrunner spot. He was usual poised self and, thanks to the rushing power, got much more support than Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral did. If any subtle reminder was needed about Saban’s possibly-pointed comment about quarterbacks “needing to surround themselves with the best talent” on ESPN’s Manning-cast last Monday, it was provided in full. 

There will be more running, even if a prolonged absence by Jase McClellan (knee injury) isn’t going to help, regardless of the mode of attack Alabama chooses. Texas A&M is demonstrably better than Ole Miss on the defensive front even though the Aggies have their own headaches in other areas. Continued improvement by the defense will be a key for Alabama. 

This game didn’t require popcorn despite Kiffin’s request. One could have been perfectly content watching while gnawing on an unseasoned strip of beef jerky for four quarters. But there still may be a game or two that will require a tastier trip to the concession stand.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt