For the first 19:58 of the Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, Duke clearly was beating Alabama, 0-0. Scorelessness had never seemed so effective or been such an effective strategy inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, even when practiced on rare occasion by the home soccer team.
It wouldn’t last. It couldn’t last. The universe would be righted and set back on its tracks. The nation’s No. 2-ranked team must overcome Duke in any game not involving a rounded ball and a circular goal.
That Bama beat Duke 42-3 was hardly the issue Saturday. That the Crimson Tide scored enough actual points to win was no revelation of any kind. But that they were slow to rouse to a new season, that style points were in short supply these first few minutes, was at least an early bullet point.
“I thought we got off to a little bit of slow start in terms of our ability to execute, but not because of lack of effort or attitude,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said, not in a troubled way. Like he added, “As the game went on, we played better and better.”
Credit some Alabama old standards for what evolved into an easy victory.
Too much defense – the Tide out-gained Duke 512 yards to 204. One early fourth-down stand and a couple of later interceptions fattened this defense’s already overflowing resume.
And too much Tua. You don’t win a Heisman Trophy in the season’s first game – especially against Duke – but one supposes Tua Tagovailoa could have given his chances a severe paper cut with a bland performance. No chance of that. He finished 26-of-31 passing, for 336 yards and four passing touchdowns.
He has a fan in Duke coach David Cutcliffe. “He is incredible,” he said of Tagovailoa. “He’s accurate. He’s poised. His release is so compact and simple and quick. He can throw on the run.” That checks a lot of boxes.
Credit Duke at least with not taking its 34-point underdog status to heart or coming out intimidated by the red sea of Alabama fans surrounding it.
To start the game, Duke ran out from its end of Atlanta’s football palace, passing through an inflatable replica leather helmet, smoke and fire dramatically erupting from special-effects devices suggesting that Kiss, not the Blue Devils travel roster, was coming onto the stage. Toy cows parachuted from the rafters.
And then the real strange stuff began to happen.
A quick summation of Alabama’s first three possessions:
Fumble by back Jerome Ford. The Blue Devils took over the ball on the Alabama 26-yard line, and moved all the way to the 7, when the bold decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 resulted in a straight-ahead run into a crimson abutment.
Missed 49-yard field-goal attempt.
In short, the Tide came out as ordinary as grits. Worse than that, instant grits.
Dating to its loss to Clemson in last year’s College Football Playoff Championship game, that made it three consecutive scoreless quarters for Alabama’s offense. It was not the kind of new beginning that offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian would be framing and hanging on his office wall.
Bama’s fourth possession hardly began with promise, a holding penalty nullifying a 54-yard catch and run by Najee Harris, one of two Alabama running backs whose suspension for some small team transgression lasted all of one quarter.
Turning that into a nuisance penalty, the Tide ran off an 80-yard drive, culminated by an artful play fake and 27-yard pass from Tagovailoa to Cartersville’s Miller Forristall, the tight end. The great Tide scoring drought ended at 10:02 of the second quarter.
There, Alabama got that bad football out of its system, like a cat coughing up a fur ball.
It would be at about this point that all talk of Duke would cease. Alabama would be the lone subject of every sentence to follow.
Forget that first-quarter daze, nothing more than a hiccup in otherwise moving sermon. It just got a whole lot better for Bama. A 13th consecutive win in Atlanta was safely swaddled and in the cradle.
And those looking for more prolonged problems, more lasting signs of Alabama slippage would have to swallow hard and admit that ‘Bama is still ‘Bama.
Well, there was one thing, something of an Alabama-specific flaw: The Tide had kicking issues – two missed field-goal attempts. Something to keep in mind if anyone gets close. Of freshman kicker Will Reichard, Saban said, “Will did great. He kicked a lot of touchbacks, which shows his leg strength. Both field goals that he hit, he really hit well. It’s a little unlucky that both of them hit the pole.”
Otherwise, let’s look at Alabama’s first three possessions of the second half:
A nine-play, 65-yard touchdown drive finished off by a 1-yard toss from Tagovailoa to Major Tennison.
Following a Duke fumble – the most grievous of mistakes – Tagovailoa turned that quickly around, going 28 yards in three plays, scoring on an 8-yard pass to DeVonta Smith.
Then, after going 90 yards with little resistance, one more passing touchdown for Tagovailoa, 21 yards to Jerry Jeudy. In all four passing touchdowns to four different receivers, there being no shortage of playmakers in Tuscaloosa.
“We were able to operate and get the ball to our play-makers on the perimeter and that was the difference in the game,” Saban said.
Tagovailoa accumulated his substantial numbers in just three quarters. On his last visit to Mercedes-Benz, Tagovailoa was beaten up and lifted for back-up Jalen Hurts, who rescued the Tide in the SEC Championship game. This, however, was a mercy substitution, with Mac Jones mopping up for the Tide.
To the winner of the Kickoff game goes the glory and the leather helmet trophy. Saban did his part tried it on during the victory ceremony, and, yes, even that fit.
“A good win for us,” he said.
“I don’t think one game reestablishes anything. I think you’ve got to do it over time and I think you have to do it as a team,” he said afterward.
Ever the coach, he added, “There’s obviously a lot of things that we can improve on.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com