Can I take a breath now? Can I unclench? It’s been 72 hours, and I’m still unsure how exactly the Tide escaped Oxford with a victory. (NOTE: This is mainly due to the large amount of cheap beer I drank Saturday to soothe my nerves, but what good is binge drinking if you can’t lean on it during times of woe? And yes, my therapist, wife and parents are all aware of it and it’s something I’m working on.)
The first half was largely a disheartening affair as the Rebs seemed primed to run away with the game, with the first drive seeing Ole Miss march down the field unimpeded for an easy score. It was almost TOO easy. I expected the Tide’s defensive line to dominate the line of scrimmage, leaving the back seven free to roam around, occupy passing lanes and harass the receivers. But give the experienced Rebel OL credit — while the Tide’s front four managed to challenge them and record two sacks, quarterback Chad Kelly largely had the time he needed to pick apart the Tide defensive backfield.
And boy, did Kelly pick them apart, finishing with a career-high 421 passing yards. Kelly showed why Nick Saban and other top programs hotly pursued him after his ouster from Clemson, repeatedly slicing up the Tide secondary with precision passing. If he can manage to behave himself like he has since a now-infamous incident involving an AK-47, I think Kelly can be the type of explosive quarterback the NFL was expecting out of Johnny Manziel.
The Tide didn’t do much offensively early to keep itself in the game, with the nadir being Jalen Hurts coughing up the ball on a crushing sack and the Ole Miss defense returning it for a touchdown to give Hugh Freeze’s squad a 24-3 lead.
Thankfully, as we heard multiple times leading up to the game, the true freshman has a short memory. He was able to follow up the fumble with a touchdown drive to bring the Tide within two touchdowns. In response, the Tide defense held the Ole Miss offense and forced a punt to MY man, Mr. Jackson. (“Eddie,” if you’re nasty.)
I certainly can’t take credit for putting No. 4 back to field the punt, but even I took notice of his elusiveness and patience during his (numerous) interception returns and wondered aloud (Were you listening Nick?) why he wasn’t being considered as a return man. His touchdown run was ultimately the crucial play in putting Bama back in the game late in the second quarter with the score 24-17 and the Tide set to receive the second half kick-off.
The second half was full of exciting moments (not the least of which was Tide WR ArDarius “#StarDarius” Stewart wielding an axe on the sideline). The running game reemerged, rising like a hungover fifth-year from the comfortable futon of jet sweeps and bubble screens that our offense had passed out on. The defense regained some of its mojo from the USC game, despite Reuben Foster and Minkah Fitzpatrick being forced to the sideline at different times. Hell, we even got a fat-boy touchdown. (Thank you, Jonathan Allen, for letting me live vicariously through you, if only for a fleeting moment.)
Ole Miss wouldn’t go quietly into that good night with a late score and a recovered onside kick followed by another score (on the next play), but I personally don’t have the heart or the clarity of memory to recount those moments.
What matters is that Alabama was able to put the game away and shed the spectre from the past two seasons … at least until those two losses are vacated.