TUSCALOOSA – Inside the halftime locker room Saturday, with No. 1 Alabama and subdivisional opponent The Citadel locked in a 10-10 tie, there was plenty of yelling to go around, but not as much as you’d think from the Crimson Tide’s head coach.
In fact, Nick Saban sounded downright reserved when he recounted how he challenged his players during the midway break in Saturday’s eventual 50-17 final non-conference win inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“You’re talking about a (Citadel) team that doesn’t have, maybe, any players that could play for our team,” Saban said after the game. “And yet, we’re not beating them, we’re not dominating them at the line of scrimmage, we’re not finishing, we’re not playing to our standard.
“ We’re not giving the kind of discipline and execution we need to execute, regardless of what they do on offense, defense or special teams. So everybody had to kind of check their hole card deep inside and see what they want to accomplish, what they want to do, and I thought the players responded pretty well.”
According to several players in the room, the most vocal were a handful of team leaders, who made it clear to their teammates that what just took place through the first 30 minutes was simply unacceptable.
“It was frustrating, … yeah, it was frustrating,” sophomore safety Xavier McKinney said. “We didn’t come out ready to play, we didn’t have the right mindset coming out, so we kind of got fired up during half, made some adjustments and came out and played in the second half.”
Unaffected by the obvious talent differential, the FCS-level Bulldogs (4-6, 4-4 SoCon) utilized its uncommon triple-option offense to methodically drive down the field from the opening snap, converting its first three straight third downs on its first offensive series . The team averag ed more than 4 yards per carry in the first quarter with 11 of its 18 carries going for 3 or more yards, which allowed The Citadel to eat up more than 10 ½ minutes in the opening period.
Saban later detailed why defending the triple-option can be – and was – so difficult.
“Because … the ball moves, the point of attack moves throughout the play – does the dive guy get it, does the quarterback keep it, is there a pitch guy?” Saban explained. “And there’s multiple blocking schemes, whether it’s trap option, lead option, zone option, a’ight, which affects the run fit for the perimeter as well as the inside-out players. It’s just completely different than what you see and what players (today) are accustomed to playing.”
Adding to the Bulldogs’ somewhat foreign option attack were the repeated cut blocks at the legs of the Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) defenders, something they see occasionally, but not with the play-in and play-out frequency that The Citadel utilized the blocking tactic.
“It was terrible, man, you’re trying to make a play on the ball and all of a sudden somebody comes at you,” junior middle linebacker Mack Wilson said. “The first couple of possessions we were frustrated because everybody was getting cut, and we weren’t used to stuff like that. But I feel like when we went in at halftime we were like, we know what’s coming now, so we have to make sure we play with better (awareness).”
Still, despite the score, there were signs of defensive progress in the first half.
Outside of the 45-yard touchdown run by Dante Smith with 11:42 remaining before the break, two of the Bulldogs’s first three offensive series of the second quarter went for a net gain of just 2 yards.
“I feel like we adjusted to it after a couple of series,” McKinney said.
That is until things picked back up on The Citadel’s final series of the half, averaging 4.6 yards on its eight carries before kicker Jacob Godek tied things up at 10-10 with a 48-yard field goal right before halftime.
On its three scoring drives Saturday, the Bulldogs averaged more than 8.5 yards per carry while tallying 162 of its 275 rushing yards on the day – or 59 percent of its offense. Of course, that statistic is aided by the two 45- and 44-yard touchdown runs by tailback Dante Smith in the second and fourth quarters, respectively.
And as Saban explained, each of those touchdown runs were the result of Alabama junior cornerback Saivion Smith failing to cover the late pitch-out option.
“On the two big plays that we gave up, everybody’s got to fit their responsibilities on the option,” Saban said, “and two times we had a guy (Saivion Smith) not take the pitch when he was supposed to take the pitch, and it resulted in two 40-plus yard runs. But other than that, I thought our guys executed fairly well.”
The second-half effort was noticeably better, including limiting The Citadel to just 24 rushing yards on its 12 third-quarter carries, four of which went for 1 or fewer yards, including three for no gain.
In fact, 16 of the Bulldogs’ 60 total carries Saturday went for 1 or fewer yards, meaning 27 percent of its runs accounted for a net gain of 1 yard and a fumble return for a touchdown by the Alabama defense, which limited the Citadel to eight such runs in each half.
Of course, the meticulous assault eventually took its toll on the Tide, as the Bulldogs averaged 8 yards per carry on an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter, capped by Smith’s 44-yard touchdown around the right corner to pull within 43-17 with 7 ½ minutes left.
But while there was plenty to be frustrated with in Saturday’s showing against the triple option, Alabama coaches and players alike were mostly ready to chalk it up as a blip on the radar and refocus on a much more familiar opponent in next weekend’s Iron Bowl matchup with rival Auburn (7-4, 3-4 SEC).
“This is so unique to have to play this (sort of offense) in this day and age, it has very little carryover with anything you do prior to the game and it’ll have very little carryover beyond this game,” Saban said. “So the one thing is, I was very pleased with how the defensive players sort of took the challenge to try and play this offense. … And other than a couple of mistakes that we made, which when you make one against that you’re going to give up plays, I thought they did a pretty good job.”
And asked whether or not he’d ever schedule another triple-option offense in the future, after watching his Tide defenses gashed for a combined 577 rushing yards in the last two (Georgia Southern in 2011 and The Citadel in 2018), Saban made one thing clear: “I’m not going to quit over it, I promise you that.”