Texas A&M entered Saturday looking for an upset like last season. The college football world wanted a sequel to this summer’s playoff between Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher. In the end, a prime-time game turned into a battle of second-string quarterbacks.
Neither team looked great as the infractions were sporadic and some self-inflicted errors, namely two field goal misses from Tide, kept it close. The scorecard ended 24-20 in favor of No. 1 Alabama. The Tide (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) outlasted the Aggies (3-3, 1-2), overcoming four turnovers (three by Jalen Milroe) while riding a dominant defensive line to avoid a last-drive collapse .
Here’s what we learned from Alabama’s win:
Alabama nearly collapses for a similar loss
On the last drive, Haynes King took short finishes against the Alabama zone. Facing a third-and-one on his own 38-yard line, King hit Evan Stewart for 23 yards. On a third-and-a-10, King found Moose Muhammad III for 12 yards. The game of the game was almost pass interference on Brian Branch in the end zone who put the ball on the 2-yard line with seconds to go.
The pass rush was coming in with every shot, it seemed, but King was capable of throwing it or getting close. The Tide had multiple drives when all it took was a first down to lose precious seconds, but Texas A&M kept pushing.
Eventually, a potentially game-winning pass to the right side pylon flew out of bounds and Alabama escaped with a win, avoiding last year’s result at College Station.
Turnovers spoil Jalen Milroe’s first start
Although Bryce Young participated in pregame drills and the Bryant-Denny Stadium announcer said he would play, it was the first career start for Milroe, a redshirt freshman from the Texas. Overall it was a mixed bag.
He completed 12 of 19 passes for 111 yards and rushed for 83 yards. Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien showed off some designed dungeons and gave Milroe more play options than he asked for Young. Milroe also threaded the needle on a touchdown pass to Cameron Latu near the goal line in the second quarter. On his opening drive of the third, Milroe hit JaCorey Brooks in stride just yards from the line of scrimmage for 29 yards.
The Tide ran for 288 yards as Gibbs continued his show-stealing performance at Arkansas with 154 more yards. Still, each of the Aggies’ scores came off Milroe’s fumbles.
He scaled the pocket twice with the ball out of his right hand. Fadil Diggs dropped him twice, giving A&M the ball at the Tide 30 and 49 yard line, respectively. King converted short fields with a pair of short touchdown passes. The crowd got a little choppy on the ensuing drive to Alabama as Milroe tried to find Jermaine Burton late in the middle and threw an interception.
Milroe never looked comfortable in the pocket for a long time. It was a mix of Milroe’s indecisiveness and Tide’s wide exits that didn’t open often enough. A fumble from McClellan, as he raced for the first-down scorer, didn’t help.
The tidal defensive line eats
Dull offenses usually run a play in its opening practice against the Alabama defense before the tide crushes the momentum. King followed this script after a 15-yard run on his first snap: slap pass from Byron Young; near Brian Branch’s pick six; collapsing the pocket forces a check that wins nothing on the third try.
Alabama finished with 14 carries and three sacks, including a pair by Dallas Turner. Will Anderson drew the majority of the attention to transmissions, leaving gaps for a Henry To’oTo’o blitz. Alabama’s fast running package of Turner, Anderson, Byron Young and a defensive tackle caused problems for A&M’s blockers.
In the first quarter, Terrion Arnold landed Tide’s second interception of the year after King was chased out of the pocket by Young. King tried to throw it over the defensive back’s head but was hit as he was throwing and Arnold was in the wrong spot along the sideline. On a fourth-and-3 to start the final frame, Anderson shoved King to the ground to force the incompletion and change of possession.
King’s touchdown throws were completed in a split second with the rush to his face. Texas A&M’s biggest gains came after turnovers before threatening late.
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Alabama special teams have no respite
Alabama had a few mental errors that threatened their point total. Jermaine Burton was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that pushed a field goal attempt by Will Reichard 50 yards out. He made that one but then missed a 47-yarder in the second half after Milroe was sacked for a 12-yard loss.
Reichard also pushed a 35-yard left attempt. That would have made a 10-point deficit with about nine minutes left in the game.
The Aggies took advantage of errors to keep the surprise close at hand (Alabama was favored by three touchdowns). Nik Constantinou slowed Kool-Aid McKinstry’s electric return play averaging 41.6 yards per punt. McKinstry, who is averaging nearly 19 yards per touch in all other games, was limited against the Aggies.