TUSCALOOSA, Ala. —Things got off to a shaky start for No. 1 Alabama on Saturday. After a full offensive possession from both teams in Bryant-Denny Stadium, Mercer had out-gained the Crimson Tide in the country six yards to one.
However, a blocked punt turned touchdown quickly helped to right the ship for the Crimson Tide as Alabama rolled over Mercer 48-14 in the home opener on Saturday.
"The real issue is that we didn’t come out with enough intensity," said Alabama offensive lineman Chris Owens. "All week we talked about putting together a 60 minute game, to start fast and finish strong. At least for the offense on the first two possessions, we just didn’t have enough juice and we didn’t execute the way we were supposed to."
The blocked punt from Chris Braswell led to a scoop-and-score from Jase McClellan and put Alabama on the scoreboard after two punts to start the game. It was the first of three touchdowns on the day for the running back McClellan. He had one on special teams, one on the ground and one receiving.
Even though it was slow going early on in the first half, the Crimson Tide took a 31-0 lead into halftime
It was a sloppy day from the start for Alabama with two penalties stalling the Tide's second drive and nine penalties for 95 yards total in the game. Last week against Miami, Alabama had eight penalties for 81 yards.
Needless to say, Alabama head coach Nick Saban was fired up about the penalties in his postgame press conference.
"I don’t care how you cut the mustard in a football game, 100 yards usually equals seven points," Saban said. "So if you’ve got 100 yards of penalties, you just gave the other team seven points because you gave up that much field position."
Overall, it was a messy game for both teams with penalties all around, dropped passes, mental mistakes and busted coverages including the one that led to a 60-yard touchdown for Mercer in the third quarter.
"We stopped ourselves four times in the first half with a dropped pass on third down, a dropped pass that could’ve been a big play and two penalties: one penalty brought back a touchdown, one penalty stopped a drive," Saban said.
The Alabama coach said his team has to up their mental intensity in order to be more disciplined and make better choices on the field.
Perhaps the biggest concern though for Alabama coming out of the Mercer game is the health of Will Anderson Jr. The sophomore outside linebacker left the game in the third quarter with an apparent knee injury and did not return.
After a red hot starting debut against Miami, it was not as smooth sailing for quarterback Bryce Young against the Bears. He was able to find some nice connections, especially with JoJo Earle and John Metchie III and finished the game 19-27 for 227 yards and three touchdowns.
Because Alabama was able to build such a big lead in the second half, after a Marcus Banks interception, Paul Tyson started his first series with 3:51 in the third quarter. On Tyson's first play under center, he connected with Earle on a 39-yard deep pass over the middle. The drive ended with a rare missed field goal from Will Reichard.
It was a big day for the freshman Earle. Earlier in the week, Nick Saban called Earle "Waddle-like" referring to Alabama wide receiver great Jaylen Waddle. Against Mercer, Earle was the leading receiver with seven catches for 85 yards. He also had two punt returns for an average of 23 yards.
True freshman quarterback Jalen Milroe led two Crimson Tide drives in the fourth quarter and did not complete a pass but had 33 rushing yards.
Outside of the 60-yard deep ball and a fourth quarter touchdown with backup defenders in, the Alabama defense was able to contain the Mercer offense that Saban called unique and a challenge throughout the week.
"I thought our defense did a pretty good job until the end of the game," Saban said. "We got to play a lot of players, and they made some mistakes and gave up some plays, but I think the experience will do them well."
Mercer head coach Drew Cronic said in a game like this, his team just comes in looking for small victories.
"Obviously, when you’re playing against a team like that, everything is magnified, every mistake you make is magnified," Cronic said. "But I appreciate where kids can fight the battle and find ways to make a few plays, and I felt like we left some things out there, I really do."
Now with two non-conference games under their belt, Alabama turns their attention to a conference matchup and trip to the swamp next Saturday.
"We have to get ready and look forward to the things that we have to do to try and improve ourselves to be able to play next week at Florida," Saban said. "It’s an SEC game, and we’ll try to go from there."