TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — He came in on a cart prior to kickoff and headed out with six minutes still on the third-quarter clock. Even Tua Tagovailoa had seen enough.
Alabama routing Western Carolina at Bryant-Denny Stadium was anything but a surprise on Saturday. The Catamounts weren’t even a .500 team in the Football Championship Subdivision, finishing their season 3-9 without scoring a touchdown here.
In terms of drama, this year’s pre-Iron Bowl money game was about as exciting as watching a bank deposit. Five years ago, WCU visited and left with $480,000. This time the Catamounts landed $1.7 million ($566,666.67 per point).
Instead, on everyone’s minds was the notion of saying goodbye, and not just to the outgoing seniors on the football team. From the Million Dollar Band and cheerleader squads, to even the press box at Bryant-Denny Stadium – which will be moved during another massive renovation beginning Monday – things will be very different the next time the Crimson Tide plays at home.
But just how different no one knows. It fed into the awkward feel of the day, complete with a gloomy sky, blustery winds and sinking temperatures.
On the field, Alabama played well. Redshirt freshman Mac Jones was 10-for-12 for 275 and three touchdowns passes without having a turnover. The offensive line didn’t yield a pressure and the running game averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
Junior wide receiver DeVonta Smith had four receptions for 94 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Jaylen Waddle had three catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, plus a 49-yard punt return that was initially ruled a touchdown only to be overturned by replay officials.
“I don’t know what happened,” Waddle said. “I tried to dive for it. I tried to get it all.
“I thought I had it but then I didn’t know.”
Defensively, the Crimson Tide gave up some yards before adjusting to Western Carolina’s shifts and motions, yet still only yielded the second-half field goal.
It created five turnovers, including four interceptions. The starting safeties had two each, junior Xavier McKinney and senior Jared Mayden.
“It really meant the world to me. I couldn’t name a better group of guys to do it with,” Mayden said. “I think I got concussion with how hard they were hitting my helmet.
“I just couldn’t picture a more perfect situation.”
If there was one play that sort of reflected the entire game, it came in the second quarter when on third-and-9 Tyrie Adams looked up and saw redshirt freshman Christian Barmore coming right at him. The Western Carolina quarterback tried what any sensible person would do when dealing with something resembling a charging bull, and got rid of the ball.
Only McKinney knocked it back, with Adams fielding the catch and trying to turn the setback into a gain. That brief hope was quickly snuffed out when the safety caught him from behind and forced a fumble that sophomore cornerback Patrick Surtain II recovered.
Although impressive, it was anything but typical.
While we know this was Mayden’s final game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, we don’t know if it was for McKinney or numerous other juniors who might consider leaving early for the draft.
It’s something that could really start looming over the year next week. If Alabama doesn’t make the College Football Playoff, how many might sit out the Crimson Tide’s bowl game?
On the flip side is Tagovailoa. Could he really be thinking about coming back?
Consequently, the most impressive thing on display Saturday wasn’t necessarily something that showed up on the stat sheet, but rather that the Crimson Tide executed so well.
One of the toughest things for a coach to do is get a team ready to play an inferior opponent, when it may not have anything on the line.
Let’s face it, this team may not. It needs some help to make the playoff, perhaps a lot. But even with all the injuries and setbacks, including not having a single starter on the defensive line against the Catamounts, this team made it clear that it’s not ready to throw in the towel.
So yes, Western Carolina at Alabama had the feel of men’s basketball game at Coleman Coliseum during winter break. The stadium was half-full and the opponent lacking. The Catamounts didn’t even bother to bring a band.
Alabama opened the game with a field goal and then scored touchdowns on five of its next six possessions.
Meanwhile, at one point Western Carolina went seven straight possessions without crossing midfield, and then scored its only points against the Alabama reserves.
Tagovailoa had already left. He had a great seat and held his arms straight up when his brother Taulia notched his first career touchdown pass. It was a swing throw to Smith, who went 15 yards to make it 52-0.
It was also Alabama’s first third-down conversion of the day.
Again, impressive, but atypical. The whole season could be described that way.
Yet Alabama simply kept plowing ahead and did what it needed to do before turning its full attention to Auburn.
“We just know that there’s a standard out there on the field and it doesn’t matter who’s in there,” redshirt junior center Landon Dickerson said. “We need to play to that standard.”