Upon Further Review: Alabama 47, South Carolina 23

Courtesy Alabama Athletics
Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The best moment at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday was something that didn’t have a whole lot to do with the game, at least that one specifically.

During the third quarter, fans honored Tyler Hilinski by holding up three fingers both in honor of the late Washington State quarterback, and to help raise awareness for mental health for student athletes.

Hilinkski died by suicide in January 2018. Sports Illustrated's Greg Bishop chronicled the Hilinski family’s search for answers in the aftermath of the tragedy, and SI TV also produced a documentary on the family.

Hilinski’s brother Ryan plays quarterback for the Gamecocks and wears the same No. 3. The true freshman made his second career start and was impressive enough to be named the Freshman of the Week by the Southeastern Conference.

Now for the game review:

• Play of the game: The 42-yard touchdown by junior running back Najee Harris is an early-season candidate for play of the year. He threw down linebacker D.J. Wonnu, hurdled safety R.J. Roderick and then bounced off a poor attempt at a tackle by linebacker Ernest Jones to turn fourth-and-2 into a backbreaking touchdown.

• Player of the game: The were numerous candidates, including Harris and wide receivers Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith, who all topped 100 all-purpose yards. However, junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, set a career high 444 passing yards, which was the third most in a single game in school history, and he became the first quarterback at Alabama to throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns in a game.

• Statistic of the game: Alabama has won 25 straight games against SEC East opponents, a streak that extends back to the last time the Crimson Tide visited Williams-Brice Stadium in 2010. It also has a winning streak against every other team in the league.

Here are some other things we noticed from Alabama’s 47-23 win in its SEC opener:

1] Yards after the catch: Unofficially, Alabama had a stunning 398 yards after the catch, which we’re guessing would be a school record if anyone kept track of that statistic long-term. To put that into perspective, it’s more yards than anyone had all of last season minus Jerry Jeudy. Last year’s team best was 267 against Texas A&M. Tagovailoa only had two attempts that went 20-plus yards downfield, neither of which was completed.

2] Who played? Overall, Alabama used 61 players in the game. Freshman defensive end Justin Eboigbe was the 21st player to make his first career appearance this season, of which 19 have been true freshmen.

3] Another way to get burned: Coming into the game, Harris had just 5 yards after the catch this season and 10 career receptions, including four last year. The two receiving touchdowns were the first of his career.

4] Explosive plays: Alabama is going to have an interesting chase for the team title of most explosive player. Saban defines an explosive play as a run of least 13 yards and a pass-play for at least 17. Jeudy tops the early leaderboard with eight, but Smith has seven, Harris six and Ruggs with five. Smith had the most against South Carolina, with four.

5] Limiting explosive plays: Even though Alabama yielded 459 total yards, it gave up just six explosive plays. Granted, that matched the number posted by the first two opponents combined, but was still under last year’s average (6.2).

6] Long stretch: A big reason why South Carolina was able to execute 86 plays on offense was due to the two possessions sandwiching halftime. Combined, they accounted for 24 plays and 148 yards, but translated into just three points. Alabama still had a time-of-possession edge of 32:37-27.23.

7] Kick coverage: The Crimson Tide’s best unit on special teams so far has been on kickoffs. Although Shi Smith is a dangerous returner, his best effort resulted in just 18 yards. He averaged just 15.5 yards on four returns with freshman kicker Will Reichard notching five touchbacks. Consequently, Alabama’s net average of 41.9 yards tops the SEC.

8] Tough defense near goal-line: Minus the last touchdown against Alabama’s reserves during the final seconds of the game, South Carolina ran 13 plays inside the Crimson Tide 25-yard line for a total of eight yards. Anywhere else on the field and the Gamecocks averaged 6.1 yards per snap.

8] Sacks allowed: The two sacks Alabama took came on the same series during the first quarter. On the first play, center Chris Owens got his left foot tangled up with left guard Evan Neal, causing him to go down and free up the man he was assigned to block. The other came on a six-man blitz in which the running back missed the block. Tagovailoa had Ruggs in man coverage streaking down the right sideline, but wasn’t able to get the ball off.

9] Bad punt: Alabama’s one punt for 14 yards looked like a bad shank, sort of like during the Missouri game last year, but was also a growing-pains play as the Crimson Tide is going with a new formation this season. When the players came off the field, special-teams coach Jeff Banks didn’t immediately go to punter Skyler Delong, who faced a lot of pressure, but blocker Miller Forristall.

10] Injury setback: Defensive end LaBryan Ray appeared to aggravate his foot injury on the first snap after Ruggs’ 81-yard touchdown, on a running play his direction. His feet and legs got tangled up in the high-traffic area.

11] Third-down defense: At one point, Hilinski was 6-for-7 on third downs. He was most effective when the Gamecocks had only three or four yards to gain for the first down, going 5-for-6. On third-and-5 or longer he was 5-for-9 resulting in three first downs, but also sacked once.

12] Who was thrown at: There were times it looked like South Carolina was trying to pick on Patrick Surtain II, when instead it was going after Christian Harris with the cornerback coming off his man to try and make a play. The Gamecocks threw four times at the freshman linebacker, with four catches for 34 yards as Harris didn’t seem to trust his reads and hesitated during his first true road game.

13] Controversial calls: Will Muschamp was right to be upset that the clock ran out at the end of the first half as there was clearly a second left after the play had ended. However, the officiating crew appeared to get it right on running back Rico Dowdle being called down at the 1 (which CBS harped on even though the Gamecocks subsequently ran three plays) because you can see his leg react to the impact of hitting the ground. It should have been reviewed, though. On the flip side, tight end Major Tennison should not have been ruled out-of-bounds on his 12-yard gain. It was a touchdown.

14] Closing in on another record: Tagovailoa surpassed Jalen Hurts on the Alabama career touchdown responsibility list with 74 scores with 66 passing, eight rushing in 27 games – an average of 2.74 per game. Alabama’s all-time leader is AJ McCarron with 80 (77 passing, 3 rushing) from 2010-13.

15] Running game numbers: A lot is going to be made about Alabama not having an explosive play in the running game and finishing with just 76 rushing yards. However, the running backs still averaged 4.3 yards a carry against a Muschamp defense determined to stop the ground game. Alabama did run a lot of run-pass-options, but if there’s a concern it’s that the Crimson Tide got stopped again on a third-and-1.

16] The sixth sign: Alabama has a 28-game winning streak when scoring a touchdown on its first offensive possession of a game.