For an Alabama offense that has sputtered since the second half of January’s national championship game, the closing seconds the first quarter Saturday might have been rock bottom.
Through three offensive possessions against Ole Miss, Alabama was averaging less than two yards per play. It had 22 total yards, one first down and was surprisingly lining up to try for another on a fourth-and-1 from its own 36-yard line.
Logic suggested Alabama was trying to draw the Rebels offsides and would punt after the quarter flipped. But as tight ends Cameron Latu and Kendall Randolph both motioned and before Bryce Young was ready for the ball, center Seth McLaughlin snapped it. Young ran into a wall and Alabama’s once-mighty offense had officially run into a ditch.
CBS cameras showed a fiery Young — playing one of his final games in an Alabama uniform — gathering his teammates in a sideline huddle after the play. He was joined by Nick Saban for a tame-by-his-standards message to the offense.
“Sometimes you just got to do simple things better,” Saban said. “That was the message that I gave to the team before the game, and they obviously got it right then [at the end of the first quarter], when we were not doing simple things very well.”
What followed for Alabama’s offense was far from perfect but a “step in the right direction,” Saban said, for a group that has not nearly been the advantage for the Tide it had been the previous four seasons.
“He obviously said some stuff to us as an offense that motivated us,” Young said. “Just making sure that we’re all working toward the same goal. We didn’t come out of the locker room the right way. We had to regroup on the sideline. I think after that, it was a good, kind of, wake-up call.”
Alabama recovered from a 17-7 deficit to score 23 of the game’s final 30 points and win in Oxford, 30-24. Of its 317 total yards, 198 came in the second half — including 82 of its 108 total rushing yards, which include sacks.
None of those numbers will threaten the record-book rewriting that took place from 2018 through 2021, but combined with some key second-half defensive stops resulted in a win that had Saban noticeably at ease afterward.
“I think the offense really responded, especially in the second half,” Saban said. “I was really, really pleased with the way they responded — on the line of scrimmage, to be able to run the ball effectively, and to make plays on third down when we needed to and move the ball, control the ball and control field position in the game.”
An Alabama offense that has searched for a physical presence at running back found one in the second half in Jase McClellan, whose playing time increased significantly as Jahmyr Gibbs dealt with a twisted ankle and did not play in the second half. McClellan finished with 84 yards on 19 carries, including a 12-yard bulldozing of the Rebels defense late in the third quarter that put the Tide in position to score the game-tying touchdown five plays later.
“I mean, he basically did that on grit and determination,” Saban said of the run.
Of the 15 plays that made up Alabama’s two field-goal drives in the fourth quarter — the difference in the game — nine of them were McClellan runs, including three for first downs.
This was still an Alabama offense that had trouble at times punching the ball into the end zone and finding explosive plays in the passing game. It also continued a trend of making head-scratching penalties, whether it was Young taking a delay of game on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line in the second quarter, or wide receiver Ja’Corey Brooks stepping out of bounds for an illegal touching flag to negate a fourth-quarter catch.
But Young was efficient enough as a passer to win. He completed 21 of 33 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns while avoiding the sort of killer interception that contributed to Alabama’s loss at LSU a week earlier.
How much Alabama can build upon its performance Saturday remains to be seen. LSU’s win earlier in the day eliminated the Tide from SEC West title contention, which also closed whatever incredibly narrow path remained for Alabama to make the College Football Playoff.
The Tide will likely empty its bench next Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium against Austin Peay, then finish its regular season in the same building against Auburn. A bowl game — and perhaps player opt-outs — will follow, as will an offseason that could see further roster churning by way of the transfer portal, and perhaps changes to the coaching staff.
It took a defensive stop for Alabama to seal the result on a cold evening in Mississippi, but on a day when Saban was looking for signs of fight from his team, his offense showed it.
“It was a tough night, in a lot of ways,” Saban said. “But a great night for us.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.