ATLANTA — After the clock ran out at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, no one was enjoying himself more than Alabama linebacker Terrell Lewis.
The junior linebacker took his time exiting following the traditional leather-helmet ceremony that concludes the annual Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, and no one should blame him. Lewis took a selfie with a fan, hugged another Crimson Tide supporter and threw his game gloves to some kids.
It was his first game in over a year, played at the place where he had suffered an elbow injury in the 2017 season opener. But when he finally got on the field in the second quarter, Lewis had a momentum-turning sack and the defense had already given up all the points it was going to yield
“Awesome,” said Lewis of the experience.
He also called it “A blessing.”
Welcome back. Not just in general to college football, or to players like Lewis and senior cornerback Trevon Diggs, who both showed just how much they were missed after suffering season-ending injuries last year. But welcome back to what Nick Saban called the ’Bama Way, something that was lacking at the end of the 2018 season.
Alabama was physical during its 42-3 victory against Duke on Saturday. It was methodical. It dominated. The Crimson Tide won every key statistical category and absolutely smothered the Blue Devils, especially in the second half.
Granted, it was anything but perfect, and with four key players including Lewis suspended for the first quarter Alabama got off to a slow start. The running game could have been better, and once again the kicker had some issues on field goals – although freshman Will Reichard still looked pretty good in his collegiate debut
Otherwise what fans saw was a return to vintage Crimson Tide.
When they look back on this game that was started by one Tagovailoa, Tua, and ended by another as his younger brother Taulia took the knee to run out the clock, they might remember it being a sort of re-affirmation.
Remember just a few months ago, or even last week, when critics claimed Saban hiring seven new assistant coaches and having new offensive and defensive coordinators — again — was helping take the wind out of the dynasty’s sails?
Did anyone see anything against Duke that made it look like that might be happening? Duke coach and Alabama graduate David Cutcliffe sure didn’t. He kept using the word “outstanding” to describe his alma mater.
Actually, the Crimson Tide appeared to be significantly better in one coaching aspect, it quickly adjusted on both sides of the ball.
When Alabama’s offense was having trouble establishing the run, and third-string running back Jerome Ford had an early fumble after being thrust into the starting lineup, the Crimson Tide and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian went to something else.
“You never know how first games are going to go,” Saban said while praising Sarkisian. “I think we started out a little bit maybe trying to run the ball and then we just decided, hey, the way they're playing, we're going to have to throw the ball on first down and get the ball to our playmakers' hands on the perimeter and make them play on the perimeter.
“When we started doing that I think that those guys made a lot of plays.”
More than Alabama going sideline-to-sideline to start wearing the Duke defense down, Tagovailoa was doing exactly what the coaches hoped and spent the whole off season working on, reading the defense and taking what the Blue Devils gave him.
It was the next step in his evolution as a quarterback, and he showed dramatic improvement from the College Football Playoff.
His first touchdown pass to senior Miller Forristall was big in that way, and also the first of the tight end’s career. Fellow tight end Major Tennison also scored after backup running back Brian Robinson Jr. found the end zone – which could have won someone a very large trifecta bet on the Crimson Tide’s first three touchdowns of the season.
Meanwhile, on defense, when Duke pulled out something that resembled the triple-option, which Alabama had no idea was coming, no one would have been surprised to see the three true freshmen in the interior panic. Instead, nose tackle D.J. Dale and linebackers Christian Harris and Shale Lee remained steadfast.
Duke was limited to just three explosive plays, none of which resulted in a touchdown. Cutcliffe is known for being an offensive whiz, only he never found a weakness to exploit.
Another telling aspect was Alabama ran in short-yardage situations, not always as well as it liked, but it didn’t struggle or shy away from it like last year.
It made key plays on third downs, going 6-for-9 in the first half to keep drives going, while Duke finished 3-for-12, and was 0-for-2 on fourth downs. The defense got off the field and it created turnovers.
That’s the ’Bama Way, which led to statistics like these:
· Alabama outgained Duke 512-204 including 367-97 through the air.
· The Crimson Tide had a 30-11 edge in first downs.
· The Tide dominated the time of possession, controlling the ball for 36:37 of the game.
More than the numbers, though, the game set an important tone for the season.
So fine. Alabama had 10 players selected in the 2019 NFL Draft including three in the first round, and 32 taken over the last three years. It’s relying on a lot of freshman to contribute immediately.
None of it was noticeable, nor the coaching turnover.
“I don't think one game sort of re-establishes anything,” Saban said. “I think you've got to do it over time, and I think you have to do it as a team, and everybody has got to buy into it, and hopefully this group has been good that way, and we certainly hope we can continue to improve and build on what we did out there tonight.”
This was a good first step, though, especially for Lewis.
“Just to play the game I love and play against somebody else, get those butterflies and jitters out of the way, and make it off this stage …” Lewis said. “It was good.”