Alabama flattens New Mexico State behind strong ground game

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Alabama flattens New Mexico State behind strong ground game

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

Alabama found the end zone before the members of the Million Dollar Band found their seats.

The onslaught began just 13 seconds into the game when junior wide receiver Henry Ruggs III took a lateral from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa 75 yards for a touchdown. The score was one of eight trips to the end zone for the Crimson Tide on Saturday afternoon as it raced past New Mexico State 62-10.

“We challenged our players individually to see if they could dominate their box,” coach Nick Saban said, “and I think there were times in the game where I thought we did that. Big play to start the game on offense, pretty good drive the second time we had the ball.”

Since the ball was thrown backward, Ruggs’ touchdown goes into the books as a rushing attempt, the first of his career. Until the fourth quarter, he was the leader of an Alabama rushing attack that totaled 318 rushing yards, its most since a 66-3 win over Ole Miss nearly two years ago. 

The run game sputtered in last week’s season opener against Duke, averaging 3.5 yards per carry, but against New Mexico State it averaged 9.9, its most since 2011. 

Those numbers, though, are partly skewed by Ruggs’ touchdown and freshman Keilan Robinson’s 74-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. Excluding them, the team had 30 carries for 169 yards, a 5.6 average.

There was some shakeup on the offensive line as junior Landon Dickerson moved from right guard to center and senior Matt Womack started at right guard, his first start since the national championship against Georgia in January 2018. Saban said after the game that the shift was due to centers Chris Owens and Emil Ekiyor Jr. being unavailable for the game. 

Saban said the running game did improve from last week, but still needs to move the ball more efficiently.

“I think we did well in those drives,” Dickerson said. “There are things we’re gonna have to work on, though. When we go back and watch the film I’m sure we’ll see a lot of areas of improvement.”

A powerful, physical running game is often considered essential to strong red-zone play, but Alabama ran just three plays inside the Aggies’ 20-yard line, two of which were passes.

Ruggs caught his first touchdown pass of the season, a 10-yarder from Tagovailoa, junior running back Najee Harris scored from eight yards out, and junior wide receiver Jerry Jeudy caught a 19-yarder from backup quarterback Mac Jones.

The team remains perfect this season in scoring touchdowns in the red zone, doing so on all six drives inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

Saban, though, said Alabama could have executed better as it was about to enter the red zone.

“We had a couple opportunities to make plays and we didn’t make them,” Saban said. “We had people open that were the quarterback’s read and we just missed it. But when we got the ball in the red zone we’ve been very efficient and I think that’s gonna be very important to us.”

Jeudy continued his campaign for a second consecutive Biletnikoff Award with eight catches for 103 yards and three touchdowns, his first career hat trick. His 18 catches are eight more than any other player on the team.

“Jerry’s a smart player, he plays hard, he has a good understanding of the offense, and he has a good understanding of what people do to stop him,” Saban said. “ … He’s effective catching and running it on short gains but he’s really difficult to cover down the field, so he’s a pretty complete guy.”

Jeudy’s three touchdowns bring his career total to 20, the second-most in Alabama history, trailing only Amari Cooper’s 31. He passed Calvin Ridley’s total of 19.

All three came from Tagovailoa, who had some typical pinpoint throws but also a few uncharacteristic misses.

“I think on my part, the passing game needs to get better,” Tagovailoa said. “Our offensive coordinator did a great job putting us in good situations; it was just me executing it.”

Once Tagovailoa and the rest of the starters exited the game, the offense, which had been on pace for a historic statistical game, slowed. 

Its final two drives, both three-and-outs, spanned six plays and eight total yards. Each took just over two minutes off the clock.

It’s only Week 2, but Saban looks for the gritty mentality to close games out even this early in the season, knowing how crucial it could be later in the season.

“I think we got really sloppy at the end of the game. I was not pleased with the way they executed,” Saban said. “We didn’t move the ball on offense. We didn’t take the air out of it at all. We didn’t take any time off the clock. We didn’t make any first downs.”

Alabama opens its SEC schedule at South Carolina next Saturday, Sept. 14, at 2:30 p.m. CT.