Alabama's wild win over Ole Miss was a moment for Nick Saban to savor instead of criticize; Punt, Pass & Pork
OXFORD, Miss. — Nick Saban, who has on occasion looked put out moments after winning a national title, bounced into a cramped interview room beneath Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday and started cracking jokes. He answered questions for a few minutes and then, as the assembled media horde filed out of the room to interview Alabama players, he waited for a minute.
Saban's wife Terry walked up from the back of the room and wrapped her husband in a huge hug. This was a bigger hug than he got beneath University of Phoenix Stadium after the Crimson Tide outlasted Clemson for the national title in January. And he seemed happier Saturday night than he had that night. This win hadn't meant more than that one. It had been far uglier than the title game. There, the Tide wove offensive, defensive and special teams brilliance together to squeak by a team led by a great quarterback playing the game of his life. On Saturday, the Tide fell behind by 21 to Ole Miss in the second quarter and then went up by 18 in the fourth. Then they surrendered two quick touchdowns to squeeze even more drama into a divisional rivalry that has produced Alabama's last two regular-season losses. Then Bo Scarbrough fumbled as the Tide tried to run out the clock, and for a moment, as that ball hung in the air, no outcome seemed too nonsensical. When Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams jumped on the ball, everyone in crimson finally exhaled.
"This game was so wild, wild and woolly," Saban said. "I'm not sure that whatever happened in the game, something else crazy would've happened past that. It was an unbelievable game for fans to watch. It was really a difficult game for an old coach to have to suffer through, but we made it. We made it."
After a game in which Alabama players stumbled, fumbled, suffered injuries and did this…
… it would seem logical that Saban would come in breathing the same kind of fire he breathed last week after a sloppy 38–10 win against Western Kentucky. Instead, after getting a few chuckles, Saban talked about love. Specifically, he talked about a message he had given the team earlier in the week.
"I asked them if they liked football," Saban said. Everybody raised their hand. I said 'How many of you love it? How many of you really love it? A lot of guys put their hands up. I said 'How many guys really love their teammates?' Everybody put their hand up.
"I said, 'You know, to overcome burdens, whether it's in a marriage, in a job—people get all excited, 'I'm going to get married. This is the woman of my dreams,' and five years later, you can't get along at all. You get a job and you say 'This is the job that I've always wanted.' Five years later, you're punching a clock, putting in time.
"There's a lot of different ways you can quit. I told the players, 'If you can overcome the burden, if you really love, that's how you overcome burdens.' People who quit can't overcome burdens. We'll have burdens in this game and we have to overcome them. That was the message coming here. I said, 'If you guys really loved each other, you're going to be able to overcome whatever we have to.' I never dreamed it would be like it was, but it turned out to be a pretty timely message, and the players responded to it."
That Saban chose to celebrate the win instead of picking apart the reasons why the score was so close offers a hint at how important this win was. Losing to Ole Miss those previous two years hadn't stopped the Crimson Tide from winning the SEC. It hadn't stopped Alabama from making the College Football Playoff. But it had given everyone something to hold over the Tide. And for a while Saturday, it seemed that trend would continue.
BAUMGAERTNER: Lamar Jackson is your newest superstar; Week 3 takeaways
Saban was quick to defend quarterback Jalen Hurts. He made sure everyone knew the Marquis Haynes sack that led to a Hurts fumble and an Ole Miss touchdown in the second quarter was the fault of a miscommunication along the line and not anything the true freshman quarterback did wrong. Saban said Hurts "sprained his wrist a little bit in the second quarter," which could explain why Hurts didn't have the same zip on the ball he'd shown in Alabama's first two games. The Tide didn't completely abandon the pass in the second half, but they only threw when absolutely necessary. Hurts completed 16 of 23 passes for 89 yards in the first half. He completed three of eight passes for 69 yards in the second half.
The Ole Miss pass rush made Hurts look like the freshman he is at times, and that produced what likely will be the defensive blueprint against Alabama going forward. Load up to stop the run and make Hurts beat you with his arm. The problem for those teams could be the same one Ole Miss faced. Stopping Alabama's run game with Hurts at quarterback is easier said than done. In Saturday's second half, the Tide averaged 7.8 yards a carry. Hurts himself averaged 10.4 yards a carry and gained 94 of his 146 rushing yards in the half. This was how Alabama overcame the burden.
Meanwhile, the Tide ended the game with safety Eddie Jackson and cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick on the sideline with injuries. Saban said both should be available to play against Kent State on Saturday—Jackson left Oxford in a walking boot and Fitzpatrick took a knee to the head while trying to make a tackle—but Alabama's pass defense suffered without them. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey and DB Deionte Thompson exchanged frustrated glances after A.J. Brown hauled in a 37-yard Chad Kelly pass between both of them for the Rebels' second touchdown in eight seconds.
Still, Alabama found a way to win. In the past two meetings with Ole Miss, the Tide found a way to lose. That's why Alabama players weren't too hard on themselves in the immediate aftermath. They were just thrilled to get out of Oxford. "I feel like I lost five years of my life," linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said.
For all they lost to stress, Alabama players and coaches did gain a little knowledge. They know the offense can gain the yards it needs on the ground. If Hurts improves as a thrower—and logic suggests he will—that's gravy. But after Robinson pounced on that fumble and Alabama absolutely needed six more yards, Damien Harris picked it up on two carries. The second, a one-yard gain on third-and-1, ended the threat. "To seal the game like that, it was a special moment.," Harris said. Said Saban of the final run: "That was nothing but tenacity."
The Rebels exposed some weaknesses in the Tide, but unfortunately for the rest of the teams on Alabama's regular-season schedule, none of them has a quarterback as good as Kelly. Meanwhile, Hurts probably will get better as a passer. That should keep opposing defenses honest. The Tide will begin addressing the issues raised in the game this week, but on Saturday, they seemed content with simply overcoming the Ole Miss burden.
A random ranking
Here is the definitive ranking of all the meddling kids and their panic attack-prone, munchies-afflicted dog on Scooby-Doo.
1. Ohio State
The 1987 Miami comparisons continue to hold up for the 2016 Buckeyes. Remember those Hurricanes? They lost Vinny Testaverde, Alonzo Highsmith, Jerome Brown and others from a team that was expected to win the 1986 national title but came up short. It turned out Steve Walsh, Michael Irvin, Melvin Bratton and some of the other new starters were as good as the players they replaced, and that team won the national title. Ohio State looks like that this season. No Joey Bosa? Here's Sam Hubbard. No Michael Thomas? Here's Noah Brown. No Darron Lee? Here's Chris Worley. The Buckeyes went on the road Saturday and demolished a good Oklahoma team. We knew based on recruiting rankings that this team would be talented. We couldn't know if it would have chemistry until it began playing games. This team has chemistry. It also has better players than anyone else.
I thought Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson would put up huge numbers this season. What I didn't realize was how good his supporting cast had become. An offensive line that struggled routinely to block four rushers last year gave Jackson excellent protection against a quality Florida State front. A defense that was good but not great last year played at a different level. It's hard to whip a good team the way Louisville whipped the Seminoles, and that 63–20 victory suggests the Cardinals can win every other game on their schedule.
As you read above, the Tide aren't perfect. The problem for opponents is that even an imperfect Alabama is better than almost every team in the country.
Because of the way the Cardinal bleed the play clock on offense, they're rarely going to post scores like the one Louisville put up against Florida State. But do not mistake a strategic choice for an inability to dominate. That's exactly what Stanford did against USC. The Pac-12 opening gauntlet for the Cardinal continues Saturday with UCLA. Six days later, Stanford plays at Washington.
Big Ugly of the Week
Louisville's offensive linemen flip sides based on formation, so tackle Lukayus McNeil wasn't always in the same spot against Florida State. But he was easy to find because he was the one caving in the Seminoles' defensive line on run plays. The improvement in Louisville's offensive line is one of the most critical developments on any team this season because it has helped unlock more of the things quarterback Lamar Jackson can do. McNeil, a 6' 6", 313-pound redshirt sophomore from Indianapolis, might be the best of the group.
1. Wondering why we didn't lead with Lamar Jackson this week? I spent Sunday in Louisville working on a story on Jackson for this week's issue of the magazine. Don't worry, he'll be covered. (If you're a defensive coordinator with Louisville on the schedule, worry a lot.)
2. Will the last healthy player please turn out the lights at Neyland Stadium following Saturday's Florida-Tennessee game?
Neither the Gators nor the Volunteers will be at full strength when the teams meet for the biggest game in Knoxville in 10 years. Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio is out with a knee injury, which means Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby will start in his place. Meanwhile, the Vols are seriously banged up on defense. Cornerback Cam Sutton injured his ankle in Saturday's win against Ohio, and Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Sutton would be out "for an extended period of time." Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin also left the Ohio game with an injured shoulder, but Jones was hopeful Reeves-Maybin could play against the Gators. The Vols were already without linebacker Darren Kirkland Jr. (ankle) and defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis (ankle). The Vols are hoping to get offensive tackle Chance Hall (knee) back soon, but Jones said last week that Hall probably would miss the Florida game.
3. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said it was a staffer—not Kelly himself—who inadvertently "liked" a tweet that suggested the firing of Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on Kelly's Twitter account Sunday.
"I have a number of people that manage my Twitter account," Kelly said Sunday during a teleconference. "Just obviously going through it, somebody unfortunately made a mistake as they were scrolling through. Kelly defended VanGorder on Sunday even though the Irish gave up 501 yards in a 36–28 home loss to Michigan State. "It's really about the fundamentals of defense and getting the fundamentals to the point where simple guard pull O play that is being fitted the right way," Kelly said during that teleconference. "Making a play on the ball. Making a tackle. I mean, this is not rocket science what we're talking about here. These are plays that we've got to continue to work on and fundamentally get better at. There's not a question about scheme. There's not a question about who's leading it with Brian. This is about coaching, communicating and teaching the fundamentals and getting our young players, those that don't have a lot of experience, better at execution."
4. That said, Kelly looked pretty ticked at VanGorder on Saturday night.
5. Ohio State's Noah Brown made the catch of the week.
6. Missouri loaded the box and dared Georgia true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason to beat the defense with his arm. On fourth-and-10 with 1:36 remaining Saturday, Eason did just that. He hit Isaiah McKenzie for a 20-yard touchdown that lifted the Bulldogs to a 28–27 win. "I thought I saw him grow up a lot tonight," fullback Christian Payne told Georgia student paper The Red and Black. "Young quarterback being put in that kind of situation—that's hard on a young quarterback. He capitalized on it tonight."
Eason made some poor throws before that touchdown toss, but he wound up completing 29 of 55 passes for 308 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He had to throw the Bulldogs to a win because the Tigers limited Georgia tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to an average of 3.6 yards a carry on 28 carries.
7. Eason's last throw prompted this reaction, which includes some NSFW language.
8. Speaking of strong language, plenty on the Plains are cussing Auburn coach Gus Malzahn after the Tigers' 29–16 loss to Texas A&M. Auburn is now 2–10 in its last 12 SEC games, and the Tigers haven't beaten a conference opponent at home since beating South Carolina on Oct. 25, 2014. Auburn faces LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
9. Texas should have gotten another chance to score during a 50–43 loss at Cal, but a Big 12 officiating crew ruled that there was no "immediate recovery" after Cal's Vic Enwere began celebrating and dropped the ball before crossing the goal line.
That said, we all may have been a little premature with the "Texas is back" rhetoric. Cal's offense, which is run by former Texas A&M coordinator and Dana Holgorsen protege Jake Spavital, looks exactly like most of the offenses Texas will see in Big 12 play. If the Longhorns can't stop the Golden Bears, they're going to have issues with the Cowboys, Sooners, Horned Frogs, Mountaineers, Red Raiders and (Baylor) Bears as well.
10. All North Dakota State does is win FCS national titles and embarrass FBS foes in paycheck games. This season, Iowa paid the Bison to stun the Hawkeyes in front of their home crowd. Remember, these are not upsets. Anyone paying attention to college football knows this. For a Power Five team, paying North Dakota State to come to your stadium is the ultimate expression of gridiron masochism.
What's Eating Andy
They gave out the Emmys on Sunday night, and Game of Thrones broke a record for the most Emmys won by any drama series. Unfortunately, Kristian Nairn once again went home without a statue. Let's be honest. Hodor deserved an Emmy. Nairn had one freaking word of dialogue with which to express himself for the entirety of his run on the series. At least Vin Diesel gets I, am and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. Oh well. If Nairn couldn't win, perhaps his performance held the door for the victories of his castmates.
What's Andy Eating
Sometimes, it's late and work must get done. Sometimes, it's early and work must get done. Sometimes, you've been awake for so long that you aren't sure if it's early or late, but work must still get done. At this point, coffee no longer has any effect. Only one menu item can provide the proper fuel: Chicken and waffles.
I reached this point as the night of Sept. 4 bled into the morning of Sept. 5. I'd spent the evening covering Texas beating Notre Dame in double overtime. Punt, Pass and Pork was due ASAP, and I had a 6 a.m. flight so I could get to Orlando in time to do a radio show and then cover Florida State-Ole Miss. I wasn't sure how I'd get the story written without passing out on the keyboard, but David Ubben of Sports On Earth and Fox Sports Southwest tossed out a lifeline. As he left the press box at Texas, Ubben mentioned that he was headed to 24 Diner to finish his story and eat the best chicken and waffles in Austin. If anybody wanted to join, they were welcome.
So I ran to my car and followed. It was about 2 a.m. when we arrived. The average blood alcohol level in the restaurant hovered around .18, but chicken and waffles can be just as satisfying for two sober old guys. So can a peanut butter and chocolate milkshake. I couldn't resist ordering one of those ahead of the main attraction because who doesn't crave peanut butter and chocolate in milkshake form after a long day at work?
Ubben warned me not to fill up on the milkshake. Despite the place's hipster trappings, he said, it serves a portion of chicken and waffles that would rival any place where the wait staff didn't wear skinny jeans. He wasn't kidding. Our server placed before me a fluffy waffle about the size of a manhole cover that held a glorious pile of chicken that had been deboned and lovingly fried. The chicken had crisp, flaky skin covering juicy, tender meat. The deboning made this a pure knife and fork meal, and it made it easy to create a the perfect chicken-to-waffle ratio in each bite.
Do not immediately dump syrup on this creation. Instead, try a few bites without it. The waffle comes slathered in brown sugar butter, and you may find you prefer this to syrup. Or, if you insist on syrup, just pour a small pool on the plate and dunk as needed. You don't need all that sweetness overwhelming your salty and savory. Besides, you don't need the sugar high. The chicken and waffle alone will power you through the night whether you're working or playing.