TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — To some, it was one of the more telling points of the Iron Bowl, although most coaches would have made the same decision.
It was the Crimson Tide’s first possession of the game, and on third-and-3 at midfield, sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts ran around the left end, only to get stopped out-of-bounds after gaining just 2 yards. Per Nick Saban’s instructions, the punt team went out on the field before the ball was even spotted.
Alabama had converted on every fourth-down opportunity of the season and the favorable placement might have caused some to think twice. But Saban didn’t, and senior JK Scott saw his punt downed at the 6.
Of course, had Saban known Auburn was about to go 94 yards on 12 plays and score a touchdown, he would have rolled the dice. Regardless, it caused fans to wonder what’s happened to the running game, which has significantly slowed over the past month.
That wonder turned to outright concern when they saw the stat lines for the Crimson Tide running backs:
- Damien Harris: 6 carries, 51 yards (8.5 average)
- Bo Scarbrough: 6 carries, 46 yards (7.7)
- Josh Jacobs: 6 carries for 25 yards (4.2)
Please for the love of me in the 2nd half can the RBs get some love!? Can we let them out of the stable and let them run wild please!?
— Alphonse Taylor (@SHANKK50) November 25, 2017
The Crimson Tide record for fewest rushing attempts in a game is 13 at Georgia in 1955, a 35-14 loss.
But it’s not like Alabama didn’t try to run the ball at Auburn.
It had 38 attempts, compared to just 22 passes. The Crimson Tide averaged 5.6 yards per carry, while the Tigers only averaged 3.4. Yet Auburn won, 26-14.
So what gives? Alabama has seen its production in the running game go from averaging 315.6 yards in September, to 270.7 in October, to 198.6 in November. It hasn’t had anyone reach 100 yards since Harris notched 125 against Arkansas.
There’s more to the answer than just saying Alabama faced ranked opponents in three of its last four games.
1. Hurts is keeping the ball more
Alabama runs a lot of plays in which Hurts has the option to hand off the ball or keep it himself, in addition to a number of run-pass options depending on what he sees. He’s also been getting flushed out of the pocket more often, although some of that may be due to his holding on to the ball, for whatever reason.
Hurts had 18 carries for 82 yards against Auburn, although two were sacks and he was pressured nine times.
Statistically, against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, he had 51 carries while Harris had 23 and Scarbrough 21.
2. Another running back in the mix
Jacobs was sidelined at the beginning of the season, but it wasn’t until he had 9 carries against Arkansas that he was fully entrenched as a key contributor. At times, Alabama has even used a two-running back formation, which might be a bigger part of the offense moving forward.
The sophomore has also had at least 2 receptions in five of the last six games. Over that span, he’s had 46 rushing and receiving attempts — and also become one of Alabama’s kick returners. That’s 7.7 touches per game, which had to come from somewhere.
Overall, Harris is averaging 9.2 carries per game, and Scarbrough 9.0. Hurts is actually averaging 11.4 per game. Remove the sacks, and it drops to 9.7, but he’d have 1,007 rushing yards (instead of 895).
3. More passes to running backs
One of the objectives of new coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense was to get the running backs the ball in space, often through short passes and screens, but that plan hasn’t quite panned out as hoped.
Scarbrough is second in team receptions with 14. Jacobs has 12 and Harris 8.
However, Scarbrough’s longest reception has been 13 yards, and Harris’ 17 yards. Jacobs is the only one of the three to have scored a touchdown. He has two (vs. Ole Miss and Mercer), and the longest was for 38 yards.
Screen passes are usually easy completions, but for whatever reason Alabama hasn’t been a very good screen team. Overall, Alabama’s running backs have made 39 catches for 346 yards and 2 touchdowns. It works out to 3.3 catches and 28.9 yards per game, and 8.9 yards per reception.
4. Fewer opportunities (internal)
Alabama hasn’t been a good possession team, especially down the stretch.
Out of Alabama’s 47 possessions in November, only seven reached double digits in the number of plays, and just three resulted in touchdowns. The longest in terms of time was 4:27 against Mississippi State, which resulted in a missed field goal.
Every November opponent had the ball for least 8:14 more, and ran more plays.
Alabama’s been struggling the most on third downs, going 5-for-14 against LSU, 3-for-10 at Mississippi State, and 3-for-11 at Auburn. That’s 31.4 percent.
“We weren’t very good,” Saban said after the Auburn loss. “We didn’t protect very well. We didn’t get open very well. The quarterback didn’t read stuff very well. We didn’t throw the ball and catch it very well. So, that’s what I saw.”
Consequently, Alabama has fallen to No. 54 nationally in third-down conversions.
This is why you should like Alabama RB Damien Harris…… pic.twitter.com/POkSz9M4RS
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) November 14, 2017
5. Fewer opportunities (external)
Teams are doing a better job of keeping the ball away from Alabama, but they’re also running it better as well — especially since the loss of senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton to a knee injury.
Opponents went from averaging 58 rushing yards on 28.2 carries per game, to 164 on 47 attempts in November. They’ve also done a better job on third downs, as the last three SEC foes combined to convert 50 percent of their chances (26 of 52).
It’s all tied together.
“I don’t think that we played good at all, not Alabama football,” Scarbrough said week after the LSU victory. “We couldn’t get going, couldn’t get clicking, couldn’t get the ball down the field, couldn’t keep the defense off the field. The defense was on the field the majority of the time.”
Alabama averaged 51.4 rushing attempts in October, but just 37 in November. Meanwhile, passes attempted only dropped from 25 to 22.
Overall, Alabama went from averaging 549 yards of total offense per game, to 352 this month. It’ll have until the end of December to re-establish an identity and figure out how to turn that around.
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