Rewinding Alabama win with bonus notes, explaining offensive play calling

There are some who won’t admit it, but the September segment of Alabama’s schedule — Texas excluded — amounted to a preseason slate.

That changes this week with a trip to No. 20 Arkansas in the first of three straight against ranked opponents. Before testing the 15-game winning streak against the Razorbacks, Alabama pushed the number to 23 straight wins over Vanderbilt on Saturday night. The 55-3 win was an all-out offensive blitz with 628 Crimson Tide yards to 129 for the Commodores.

Before turning the page to Arkansas, let’s take our weekly Sunday look back at Saturday’s action. This week, we’ll add extra focus to some of the play-calling questions I’ve seen on social media.

— Thought it was notable that Alabama opened with a quick throw to Jermaine Burton after the Georgia transfer had three catches in the previous two games. It’s hard to tell exactly if it was a read or designed to go his way since Vanderbilt’s soft cornerback coverage on outside receivers left the door open for quick shots all evening.

— Even more notable, Jase McClellan got all the first-quarter carries even when Jahmyr Gibbs was on the field. Just a theory but Alabama could be throwing a lot of formations and personnel groups to upcoming opponents as they crunch film.

— Alabama had 29 passing attempts and eight carries in the first half. It’s easy to say that’s a horrible balance, hand up, I was among those. Plow after the game addressed that by explaining a little more of the take-what-they-give-you offensive scheme. “We don’t just call running plays,” Saban said. “A lot of the plays that ended up being passes, were called runs. So I’m concerned about how we move the ball because we’re going to take the defense gives. So if they’re playing to stop the run, we’re gonna throw. If they’re playing split safeties and they’re playing soft, we’ve gotta be able to run it. So it’s not a matter of what the stat sheet says.”

— Henry To’o To’o was not fooled by the Wildcat formation on third-and-1 on the opening possession. He timed the snap perfectly and shot the A-gap untouched for a big tackle for loss. Plow praised his instinct after the game.

— The fascinating number with Alabama’s otherwise dominant defense is one. Through four games, it created just one turnover — Will Anderson’s Pick 6 against ULM. Only four of 131 FBS teams have one or fewer takeaways, a list that includes Notre Dame, Stanford and a Fresno State team with zero turnovers created. Alabama is one of 13 teams without a fumble takeaway.

— That said, Alabama is tied for the national lead with just two touchdowns allowed. Iowa and Illinois are the other two.

— The second Alabama possession was the epitome of take-what-they give. Watching from the press box, I noted Vanderbilt’s corners were a good 10-12 yards off Ja’Corey Brooks lined up wide near the Vandy sideline. Brooks knew to run a few yards and camp out for the quick pass. Young later called those “free access throws” with such soft coverage. Completions of 16 and 26 yards on very similar plays opened the drive. A 6-yarder on a different play to Brooks set up the 21-yard touchdown pass in which her ran right past the corners. Young was 4-for-4 for 68 yards, all to Brooks on that drive. “Just a really smart player,” Young said of Brooks. “Really instinctual, consistent. I know where he’s going to be.”

— Vanderbilt did practically nothing on offense but found momentary success on the second drive that ended with a field goal. They tested the edges of Alabama’s defense with quick WR screens and a jet sweep before a back-shoulder throw was the longest play of the game. It went for 22 yards with Terrion Arnold in coverage. A Ray Davis four-yard run represented Vandy’s only third-down conversion on a night it finished 1-for-13.

— Saban noted Alabama’s ability to limit big plays as a big reason it has allowed just two touchdowns in four games. Opponents have just eight plays of 20-plus yards so far — tied for the fourth-fewest nationally. Tulane’s allowed just five.

— Good for former Alabama kicker Joseph Bulovas for scoring the first points in three Vanderbilt games against the Tide. It was n’t always a smooth ride in his time in Tuscaloosa but he nailed the 40-yarder Saturday and had two game-winners last year for the Commodores.

— Alabama had two holding calls on the offensive line in the first quarter as the team finished with six flags for 55 yards. Vanderbilt went into the second half before being penalized but also finished with six.

— Jermaine Burton did a nice job of finding soft spots in the zone defense with his four catches for 94 yards.

— Alabama had 12 different players catch at least one of the 30 receptions on a night the Tide threw for 400 yards.

— Traeshon Holden’s 8-yard touchdown reception to make it 14-3 ended with a special moment for a fan with a camera on the fence.

— Saban did his weekly play diagram of Will Anderson’s fourth-down stop on the QB keeper in the second quarter. These are always fascinating for football heads. Give it a look.

— Alabama kicker Will Reichard made FGs from 40 and 21 yards against Vandy. He’s 6-for-6 this year with a long of 52 and an average kick of 37 yards.

— Speaking of special teams, Kool-Aid McKinstry remains a must-watch on punt returns. You never know what you’ll get as he averaged 23 with a long of 40. The lost fumble at the end of the 40-yarder won’t sit well in the movie room.

— The muffed punt from Brian Branch won’t either but props to Vandy punter Matt Hayball. He punted 10 times, averaged 43.2 yards, made a few tackles and recovered McKinstry’s fumble.

— Bryce Young had a mostly clean jersey at the end of the night as he went without a sack for the first time this year. The 4.0 sacks allowed by Alabama are tied for 22nd nationally.

— Would love to hear from Cameron Latu about the play where he went down clutching his knee. After a minute or so on the ground, he didn’t put any weight on that right knee. There was considerable concern on social media as he went to this injury tent only for him to jog back onto the field when Alabama got the ball back.

— Watching Will Anderson speed rushing off the edge is art. The Vandy left tackle had no shot one-on-one on a third-and-long midway through the second quarter. Anderson spoke about the pass rush dynamic after the game. Give it a read.

— Freshman Tyler Booker continues to get a look at guard, rotating in with Javion Cohen and Emil Ekiyor. He had a physical block to help spring McClellan for a 20-yard gain, the longest of the night before the final few minutes when the backups put up numbers.

— Early in the game, noting the disparity of runs and passes, I remember saying to my co-worker Alabama would still finish with service academy rushing numbers despite the fact it had just eight for 55 yards in the first half. Skip ahead to the final stat sheet: Alabama had 34 carries for 228 yards.

— Gibbs ran it just three times for 21 yards but consecutive receptions in the second quarter showed his value in the passing game. First, a 26-yard included his track speed but also physicality to break a few tackles to reach the 7-yard line. Two snaps later, he put a textbook spin move on a failed tackler to dart in for the touchdown. It was Young’s fourth passing touchdown of the night. For the season, his 13 scoring throws rank fifth nationally.

— Alabama had 8 tackles for loss to bring the season total to 29. That’s good for 22nd nationally.

— DJ Dale recorded his fourth sack of his career on a play Vanderbilt’s blocking scheme appeared to forget about the nose tackle.

— With all the talk of downfield passing, the 48-yard strike from Young to Burton was the longest throw of the season with 10 yards to spare. A week ago, Young missed the Georgia transfer who was wide open behind the ULM defense for a sure touchdown but they connected to set up the field goal before halftime.

— Backups started to see playing time after halftime. Cornerback Eli Ricks saw some time after Terrion Arnold won the starting job over the former 5-star who transferred from LSU. Ricks was flagged for blatant pass interference. A few plays later, he had a hilarious flop when a ref’s flag hit him in the arm. The TV cameras didn’t fully capture it because it would’ve been a viral video if they did.

— It’s also worth noting at least once Alabama used the three-headed pass rush formation with Anderson, Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell on the field at the same time. Not an enviable task for a QB to set the protection.

— Skipping ahead to the end, it was interesting to see the Alabama sideline reaction to Jamarion Miller’s 40-yard touchdown run that made it 55-3. Many starters spilled down the sideline — Bryce Young included — to celebrate with the freshman running back.

Thanks for reading to the end. Shout out to Dr. Mike McQueen, a family friend and former Alabama offensive lineman who was one of the troopers to finish all of last week’s ULM rewind.

Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or ten Facebook.

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