Alabama’s 400-yards rushing against Tennessee was as dominant as it gets.
It was a performance three years in the making.
In 2013, as Nick Saban continued to lobby for rule changes to slow down the spread no-huddle offenses, he was really asking the viewing public a philosophical question: Is this really how you want football to be played? The answer was a resounding “yes”.
Saban’s response? If you can’t beat them, join them. (Though I guess he was already annihilating most).
For years, out of the kindness of Saban’s heart, Alabama conceded a player in the run game, running a traditional 10-on-11 system — with the quarterback being a nonfactor. It worked pretty well, fueling four national titles in seven years, with a pair of Heisman-winning running backs to boot.
But the greatest coaches are forever evolving. Saban hired Lane Kiffin with the vision of morphing Alabama into a spread-to-run juggernaut that forces the defense to account for all 11 offensive players at all times.
Well, mission accomplished.
With Jalen Hurts starting at quarterback, the defense must now account for the quarterback option, making Alabama’s offense an 11-on-11 contest. And, with its 11 being more talented than anyone else’s, it may be time to stop the damn fight.
The quarterback as a running threat forces the defense to cover an extra gap. Defenses are made to run a two-gap system along their front, with defenders reading and reacting, rather than pinning their ears back and attacking the quarterback.
The result is a defense playing on its heels against the run. And one that is more vulnerable to play-action passes. With the defenders looking at the mesh point and reading any fakes, their eye disciple is challenged on each and every snap.
Kiffin further blurs those lines by using a constant stream of window dressing. He utilizes jet sweeps, fake sweeps and ghost motions, all to test the eye disciple of each defensive player. The fake perimeter moves, and threat of the quarterback, force defensive players to move laterally (with their eyes and body), putting them in a tough bind. They’re mindful of giving up the edge, if it is indeed a perimeter run, but also paranoid about abandoning their run fit and overpursuing.
It’s a style of offense that commands the defense to be perfect on every play. Regardless of talent — and Tennessee is really talented on defense — at some point the dam bursts, with a defender misreading the play and an offensive player finding an open lane, usually for a big gain.
That’s how Alabama ends up, as a team averaging 6.2 yards per carry on the season, with two running backs averaging more than 8 yards per carry and a quarterback rushing in excess of 400 yards through seven games — more rushing yards than a Saban quarterback has ever had in a season.
Alabama’s first scoring sequence vs. Tennessee last Saturday is the perfect example — a game in which it rushed for more than 400 yards, averaging just short of 9 yards per carry. The Crimson Tide ran the same concept multiple times in a row: an outside-zone run with a quarterback option.
The plays were simplistic by design but forced Tennessee’s defense to read, react and guess. Kiffin then hit the Vols with a ghost motion, while still running the traditional outside zone. And he followed that up with a reverse using the same personnel. The linebackers bit on the outside-zone run that they had seen for three plays in a row. This time the perimeter run was the fake and ArDarius Stewart took off on a reverse, following his blocks and waltzing into the end zone for a touchdown.
Here’s the sequence in full:
Play 1 — They open up with the basic outside-zone run, with Hurts reading the Tennessee edge defender and opting to hand off the ball rather than keep it. (Note how edge defender Corey Vereen, No. 50, sits down rather than attacking the mesh point.)
Play 2 — It’s the same play: an outside zone with a quarterback option. But here’s where the window dressing comes in. To disguise things (and set up a later play) Stewart fakes a jet sweep, causing a defensive misread and opening a huge running lane, with Damien Harris going untouched until the third level.
Edge defender Vereen had to read the three-player mesh and make the correct decision. He found himself in no man’s land, voiding his gap and opening the hole for Harris.
Play 3 — The same concept, well-defended by Tennessee. In fact, Hurts likely missed an explosive play by not pulling the ball down and taking the option, where he had the edge and an additional blocker out in front.
Play 4 — The payoff play. Alabama motions Calvin Ridley into the backfield and fakes the sweep. Every Tennessee linebacker overpursues the outside run, and Ridley flips the ball back to Stewart on the reverse for the touchdown.
Four plays, 79 yards, touchdown.
It was outstanding sequencing from Kiffin, coupled with great play designs.
The biggest impact on that drive came from Hurts. Though he didn’t take off with the ball, the fear off him doing so took a defender out of the game. That made it 1-on-1 football across the board, where the quality of Alabama’s offensive line, wide receivers and running backs took over.
When Hurts does take off, the offense reaches a new level.
Tennessee’s injury troubles allowed Kiffin to directly attack backup linebackers. It’s tough for elite players to make the right decision on every play, let alone backups. It becomes damn near impossible when the offense is running a “you go there, I’ll go here” type of attack with superior talent.
For multiple explosive plays, Kiffin ran split-zone lead options, with Hurts reading linebackers rather than a down lineman, and a pulling tight end to add an additional perimeter blocker.
The concepts sent the Vols’ defense into a state of panic. Linebackers were hesitant and often looked lost.
On a long Hurts touchdown run, Tennessee couldn’t even line up to cover each gap, gifting a running lane to the end zone.
This new attack is as devastating as it gets. Alabama used to plow open huge holes with a dominant offensive line. This year, Crimson Tide are opening the same-sized holes but doing so through play designs.
Under Saban, Alabama’s run game has always been scary. With Hurts, it’s unstoppable.