Alabama football: Tide puts 'special' in special teams vs. Aggies
Alabama’s offense can beat you in a heartbeat, with a once-in-a-generation quarterback throwing to a quartet of future NFL receivers.
Alabama’s defense can beat you by taking away your best player and make you run for your life.
Alabama’s special teams? They can beat you simply by engaging them.
Texas A&M figured that out the hard way Saturday, as the Crimson Tide’s oft-maligned special teams unit turned in a notable afternoon in a 47-28 victory at Kyle Field.
The 3-3 Aggies learned the hard way why teams largely kicked away from Jaylen Waddle last season. As A&M chose to use the talented leg of Braden Mann both as a punter and on kickoffs, Waddle fielded and return 4 punts.
The result? Pain for Texas A&M.
Waddle had 128 total punt return yards — a 32-yard average — with a long of 43 yards that could have easily been a touchdown had Mann not tackled him in the open field. Considering Mann’s punts traveled 199 yards, the Crimson Tide ate up all but 71 of those yards with Waddle’s legs and elusiveness.
“People don’t kick the ball very much to us,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We went through 6 games last year at the end of the season where we got 1 ball kicked to us that we could return on a kickoff return. They got to the point where they would never kick the ball to Waddle.
“These guys have a great punter, and everyone asked me about great punters. A great punter is good for us because we get some return balls. And we got some. He kicked it far and we returned it far.”
It wasn’t just punt returns where Alabama excelled Saturday. The Tide’s kickoff return unit was strong, too. Henry Ruggs III took 4 kickoffs back for 131 yards — including a long of 40 yards — and Trevon Diggs took 1 kickoff back for 28 yards.
Waddle’s 128 punt return yards ranks No. 3 in the Alabama record book for most in a game. He and Ruggs set career marks in those respective categories.
“Special teams was huge in this game,” Saban said. “We had over 300 yards of returns. And the way I do math, whether you score or not, 100 yards you have of field position is worth 6 points. It was huge in our ability to turn the field around all game long.”
The best of Alabama’s special teams play, though, came in the 4th quarter when Ale Kaho broke free to block a Mann punt deep in the A&M end that Tyrell Shavers recovered for a 2-yard touchdown.
The blocked punt for a TD marked Alabama’s 70th non-offensive touchdown of the Saban era and 2nd in 2019. Alabama totaled 7 non-offensive scores in 2018 and had a single-season record 15 in 2016. That was the most in a season by any Football Bowl Subdivision team in the last 20 years.
Alabama scored a non-offensive touchdown in 10 consecutive games dating from to the CFP Semifinal vs. Michigan State on Dec. 31, 2015, to the Texas A&M game on Oct. 22, 2016. The Tide had 14 non-offensive TDs in that span – 4 interceptions, 4 punt returns, 5 fumble recoveries and a kickoff return.
“Alabama took advantage of all three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams — and that’s why they are No. 1,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Their return game was big, and we gave up a blocked punt that can never happen. They kept winning the field position game against us.”
Another sometimes-criticized Crimson Tide component — the offensive line — turned in perhaps its most cohesive performance of 2019.
The offensive line started a new combination for the first time — Landon Dickerson at center for the injured Chris Owens and Deonte Brown rotating in at right guard — and the unit was solid throughout the game.
“I thought we had really good pass protection,” Dickerson said. “There’s a few here and there that I think we might have slipped up and we need some improvement, but overall I thought we had fairly decent pass protection today.”
The effort came against an Texas A&M strong defensive front. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike was a preseason first-team coaches All-SEC selection, and Buddy Johnson’s 5.5 tackles for a loss were tied for 6th in the SEC entering Saturday.
“We thought they were really decent, really good athletes. Had great get-off, great motors, great drive.,” Dickerson said. “Really this week, it was going to be about who was going to fight the longest. Obviously the second move is there, that’s what gets the most quarterback pressures and sacks, so really it’s going to be about you lasting longer than the other guy.”
It wasn’t all sunshine for the Tide, though. Alabama committed 11 penalties for 91 yards, the 3rd time this season Alabama has committed at lest 10 penalties and the 2nd time penalties have cost it at least 90 yards. That rankled Saban, as did the uncertain short-term future of WR DeVonta Smith after Smith was ejected for throwing a punch at an Aggie defender. He could miss the first half of next week’s game against Tennessee.
“We just got to play smarter when it comes to those kinds of penalties,” Saban said. “Basically, (Smith) got hit — punched — and he retaliated. We’ll have to wait for the conference office to see what his status is. Obviously their player shouldn’t have punched him, but he also should’ve had the discipline not to hit back, because that’s a foul.
“We also got a penalty for pushing the pile at the end of the game, which, we’re trying to take the air out of the ball so the other team can’t get the ball back. You can’t get penalties. Just didn’t finish the game like we need to finish the game; you don’t want to give good teams the ball back. You want to take the air out of it and not give them extra possessions.”