Alabama’s 49-21 win over Kentucky wasn’t the team’s biggest win of the season, but it was by far its most complete. The win in Lexington clinched the SEC West title, sending the Crimson Tide to their 10th SEC championship game under Nick Saban. After the game, Saban pointed out how impressive the win was considering the number of key contributors that were missing.
Starting receiver Jermaine Burton (illness), safety Jaylen Key (quad) and linebacker Deontae Lawson (ankle) all missed the game. Veteran receiver Ja’Corey Brooks (shoulder) also didn’t play. In their absence, Alabama outgained Kentucky by a 444-253 margin, controlled the time of possession and were superior on third down, converting 7 of 11 compared to the Wildcats’ 3 of 11.
Which brings us to this week’s Alabama film breakdown. This team is unrecognizable from its early-season form and is peaking at the right time. With a few games to go, including the Iron Bowl against an Auburn team that should enter on a four-game winning streak, Tide fans should be encouraged about the upward trajectory in November.
Smith: This Alabama team is Nick Saban’s masterpiece
Alabama’s offense controlled the game with Milroe’s arm
Jalen Milroe’s legs were the story last week against LSU; against Kentucky, it was his arm. In some ways Saturday’s game resembled the Texas A&M game: The Wildcats aimed to stop the run with their big and deep defensive line, but they were beaten by Milroe’s passing ability.
The strategy was partly dictated by the early thigh injury that left Milroe hobbled, but offensive coordinator Tommy Rees got his quarterback going early with a flurry of short passes. Alabama’s offensive line had its best pass blocking game of the season, with zero sacks allowed. Even with as many as eight defenders in coverage, Milroe had enough time to dissect Kentucky’s zone and make downfield plays.
On the play below, Alabama’s line cleared the way for Milroe, who went through his initial progression before coming back to a streaking Kobe Prentice across the field for a 30-yard gain. Crossing routes gave Kentucky’s zone fits throughout the game.
Milroe was able to keep his banged-up leg warm enough throughout the game to remain a running threat, and it paid off in the passing game. He was able to take advantage of the eyes on him in zone coverage to create openings for the pass catchers. On this touchdown pass to Roydell Williams, Milroe rolled out and Williams’ assignment left him to chase the quarterback. Milroe directed Williams up the field and hit him in stride for the score. Credit Milroe for going through his progressions and wide receiver Malik Benson for his downfield block.
Overall, Alabama’s rush offense was on par with its season averages: 159 total yards and 4.1 yards per carry. The Tide were 3 of 5 on third downs of four yards or less. Kentucky’s defensive line, particularly All-SEC candidate Deone Walker, did well in one-on-one situations as part of an effort that kept Alabama at 3.6 yards per rush in the first half. However, Alabama ran for nearly 4.5 yards per carry in the second half when it needed to burn clock. One reason was the execution of the duo (double-team) blocks that have worked well this year. On this play in the third quarter, Tyler Booker and Kadyn Proctor moved Walker out of the play and sprung Jase McClellan into the second level untouched.
Alabama’s defense was the more physical unit
Before fully getting into the defense’s success, the Alabama offense deserves credit for its own role in neutralizing the Kentucky offense. A touchdown-three-and-out-touchdown opening sequence gave the Tide a 14-0 lead before Kentucky ran its fourth play of the game. And on that fourth play, a forced fumble by Terrion Arnold, recovered by Caleb Downs and followed by a quarterback sneak from Milroe, extended the lead to 21-0 and basically ended the game.
This play also shows the shift in Alabama’s secondary of Arnold to Star, Malachi Moore to safety and Trey Amos to cornerback — the same lineup that finished the LSU game. Safety Kristian Story got the start at free safety and played 24 snaps, but that lineup continued throughout. In the last six quarters, the Alabama secondary has held opposing quarterbacks to 27-of-49 passing (55 percent) for 266 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, with that grouping leading the way. Arnold recorded his team-high third interception later in the game, and Amos allowed just one catch for seven yards in 28 coverage snaps in his first start.
Kentucky ran 24 first-down plays for 187 yards. Four of those plays accounted for 160 yards, the only four explosive plays the Wildcats had all game. Take those away, and Kentucky averaged 1.3 yards per first down play. Without the threat of the run, Kentucky’s play-action-based pass game had little chance, and the defense feasted.
Alabama’s nine tackles for loss was the result of a three-level effort. The defensive line was the catalyst in wrecking Kentucky’s game plan. Ray Davis, the SEC’s second-leading rusher, only mustered 26 yards on 12 carries. Plays like the one below are why: Multiple Alabama defensive linemen soundly beat their assignments and cleared the way for linebackers to make plays.
Linebacker Jihaad Campbell tied with Downs to lead the defense with 53 snaps on Saturday and finished with five tackles, one tackle for loss, one pressure and one pass breakup. The rapidly improving sophomore is too good to keep off the field. On this play, he quickly diagnosed the run, shed the blocker and recorded a tackle for loss with lineman Jaheim Oatis.
This play, another failed first-down run, saw Downs fly from the back end to make initial contact on Davis, while Amos impressively fought off an offensive lineman to finish the job.
Kentucky was forced to attempt long-developing pass plays to earn chunk yardage. Alabama did bring blitzes that affected quarterback Devin Leary but also created plenty of pressure with four-man rushes. If that continues, it’s going to spell trouble and more turnovers for opposing quarterbacks.
Ty Simpson impresses in limited reps
The second unit saw extended playing time in the fourth quarter. Backup quarterback Ty Simpson played 17 snaps across two series and led a touchdown drive on his first possession. The following snapshots give a peak at his progression over the last several weeks.
Simpson’s first pass attempt came on a third-and-12. Playing behind the first-team offensive line (plus Darrian Dalcourt at center), Simpson delivered an accurate ball to Jalen Hale who did a good job of fighting for more yards. On the next play, Simpson rolled out on a play-action and hit Hale in stride for another long gain.
A few plays later, Simpson put a nice move on a defender and escaped right for a 9-yard run and another third-down conversion. This is also a Jam Miller highlight: He took the blitzer out of the play with one of the better pass blocks you’ll see from a running back.
Simpson’s last pass attempt didn’t count due to a pass interference call on Cole Adams (No. 13), but it’s worth noting. Saban left the offense on the field for a fourth-and-3 try, and Simpson went through a few reads before finding Miles Kitselman for the conversion, a nice touch pass with defenders oncoming. Overall, the second unit moved the ball fairly well both by air and ground, including Justice Haynes, who carried it six times for 33 yards.
Two other plays of note
An early swing play came in the first quarter when Kool-Aid McKinstry muffed a punt that set Kentucky’s offense up deep in Alabama territory for a possession that resulted in a touchdown. Saban was quick to defend McKinstry after the game, saying that the gunner on that side, Trey Amos, ran into him.
“I think the players around him have to do a little bit better job,” Saban said. “Because you get these radical punts, you don’t get like easy balls to field. You have to cover a lot of ground to catch it, and that launch point of where he’s catching the ball changes for the people that are blocking for him. So I’m not making excuses for anybody, but you can’t blame him for that one.”
It might’ve looked like Amos touched him from field level, and he was in McKinstry’s vicinity, but he didn’t make contact at any point, and it appeared to be a clean drop. McKinstry did bounce back with a 27-yard return later in the game. The punt return chronicles continue.
Another play that Saban referenced postgame was the 74-yard run that set up Kentucky’s last touchdown with the second team defense in the game. Outside linebacker Keanu Koht missed the initial tackle, then Story and Amos both overran the play, which left the backside open and sprung the Kentucky running back.
Story might have made up for it on the following play. It appeared that he forced and recovered a Kentucky fumble on Alabama’s one-yard line, but strangely the play wasn’t reviewed, and Kentucky scored a touchdown two plays later.
(Photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)