TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was minutes after the University of Alabama’s loss in the Iron Bowl when Jalen Hurts walked into the noisy corridor to address reporters. Auburn fans were still celebrating on the field when the sophomore quarterback tried to explain what had gone wrong.
“We did not execute,” he simply said about his first regular-season defeat with the Crimson Tide. “Usually in the games you lose there is a lack of execution somewhere throughout the game.”
He could have made a number of excuses, or simply said “everything.” From botched snaps to bad penalties, Alabama made numerous uncharacteristic mistakes. That included Hurts, who had a rare turnover with a lost fumble and ended up with as many carries as all of the Crimson Tide running backs combined.
But there was plenty of blame to go around.
“I think Jalen competed in the game,” Nick Saban said. “He made a lot of plays in the game. He scrambled a lot with his feet. We just didn’t do a good enough job in the passing game, but that is not just Jalen. We didn’t have good enough protection, we didn’t have guys getting open.
“Maybe we just needed to have better design in what we did, and he probably could have done a better job of reading some things.”
The question now is how does the Alabama offense move forward, and how much better in the passing game does Hurts have to be against Clemson for the Crimson Tide to reach its third straight National Championship Game?
With Alabama looking to tweak the running game, the answers are twofold. The Crimson Tide offense definitely has to be better in some respects, but regarding Hurts, probably not as much as you think.
Statistically, Hurts’ passer-efficiency rating of 155.6 was a major improvement over last season, and he finished the regular season ranked 12th in the nation. He’ll almost certainly surpass 2,000 passing yards in his next game, and has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 15 to 1.
Among the things that some might find surprising is that he has been at his best in the first quarter.
Hurts passing by quarter
The most completions he had in a game this season: 14.
His worst passing performance was at Vanderbilt. Hurts was 9 of 17 for 78 yards, giving him a passer-efficiency rating of 91.5. It came on the heels of his 12-for-17 passing game for 248 yards and 2 touchdowns against Colorado State, for a 232.0 rating.
Hurts was sacked 11 times in November, more than the first two months combined (10).
Hurts passing by field position
When Alabama last played Clemson in January, Hurts finished 13 of 31 for 131 yards, roughly half of which came on his 68-yard touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard in the third quarter. The offense stalling in the second half — especially after running back Bo Scarbrough suffered a fractured leg — directly impacted the defense, which was on the field for 99 snaps.
However, Hurts still led the late go-ahead drive that was topped by Deshaun Watson and his game-winning touchdown pass with one second remaining.
“We had our chances, and there’s nobody that we can blame but ourselves,” Saban said during his postgame news conference.
Alabama finished with a 2-0 edge in turnovers, tallied 221 rushing yards and had a 24-14 halftime lead.
Alabama was 38-0 under Saban when having at least a plus-2 advantage in turnover margin. It was 91-4 since 2008 when rushing for at least 140 yards, and 106-6 when leading at halftime.
Yet the Tide still lost.
Watson, who Saban called the “the best player in college football since Cam Newton,” threw for 420 yards and 3 touchdowns and rushed for one score while not throwing an interception.
So there are some similarities in Hurts’ only two career losses. Against Auburn he was 12 of 22 for 112 yards and 1 touchdown. He had no turnovers, but was sacked twice and pressured nine times. Hurts also had 18 carries for 82 yards, averaging 4.6 yards even with the sacks.
ESPN, Bleacher Report, USA Today and the NFL's website are among those listing Alabama QB Jalen Hurts as a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2018.
Sports Illustrated (@Andy_Staples) did not even mention Hurts.
— Alabama Crimson Tide (@crimsontidefam) December 11, 2017
However, the statistic that jumped out in both games was third-down conversions.
Against Clemson, Alabama was just 2 of 15 (compared to 9 of 18 in the previous title game). At Auburn, it was 3 of 11.
That’s the key for Hurts and Alabama’s offense.
“Definitely a pivotal point of the game, and we have to do a better job at executing,” Hurts said. “It all comes down to execution.”