TUSCALOOSA — The freight train that is No. 2 Alabama continued its domination of inferior competition with its 84th consecutive victory over unranked opponents following Saturday’s 62-10 rout of New Mexico State in the Crimson Tide’s home opener from Bryant-Denny Stadium
A week after an uncharacteristic slow start, Alabama (2-0) was clicking on all cylinders from the opening whistle as junior receiver Henry Ruggs III took a lateral from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa 75 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first offensive play.
Of course, it didn’t stop there as the Crimson Tide rolled up 603 total yards on the afternoon for its first 600-yard effort since rolling up a season-high 639 total yards in a 65-31 romp at Arkansas last season.
Tagovailoa combined for 260 total yards, including 227 yards and three touchdowns on 16-of-24 passing, with fellow junior Jerry Jeudy once again pacing the aerial assault with a team-leading eight catches for 103 yards and three scores.
The Crimson Tide will travel to Columbia, S.C., for a cross-divisional matchup with South Carolina (1-1) at 2:30 p.m. next Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium. The last time it visited Columbia in 2010, a top-ranked Alabama team left with a 35-21 loss to the then-19th ranked Gamecocks.
After struggling on the ground against lowly Duke in Week 1, Alabama’s offensive line experienced a bit of a reshuffling in Week 2 as redshirt junior Landon Dickerson took over as the team’s starting center and redshirt senior Matt Womack took his place as the starting right guard.
“I just want to be a versatile guy that can fit in no matter where I need to be,” Dickerson said after the game. “If it’s center, guard, tackle, whatever, I just want to pride myself on giving the best at whatever position coach decides to put me at that week. He felt this week I was going to be best at center, so that’s what I ended up doing.”
The move was made out of necessity, according to Saban, because redshirt junior Chris Owens, who started at center last week, spent the game in sweat pants on the sideline beside injured redshirt freshman lineman Emil Ekiyor Jr., the second-team center who hurt his knee against Duke and is expected to miss another week or so.
“Chris Owens is the starting center and Emil is the backup center, (and) Dickerson is the third center. So if the first two guys are out, it’s just basic math that says the third guy has to play,” Saban said flippantly. “It was good to get them some experience. I’ve made the statement that I thought we had seven guys that are starters on the offensive line that we felt good about, and we had to play with five today.”
That gave the Crimson Tide two massive guards in 6-foot-7 and 360-pound freshman Evan Neal at left guard and the 6-7 and 325-pound Womack at right guard, providing a powerful push up the middle that eventually wore down New Mexico State’s overmatched defensive front. Combined with junior tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr. on the left and right sides, respectively, it was a formidable combination up front.
That extra push was just what Alabama’s beleaguered run game needed as it racked up 318 rushing yards on 32 carries for an average of 9.9 yards per carry after averaging less than 3.5 yards a carry last week (145 yards on 45 attempts) versus Duke. It was the Tide’s best rushing performance since a 365-yard effort in a 66-3 rout of Ole Miss in 2017.
“I was pleased with the run game,” Tagovailoa said.
Ruggs’ 75-yard run — which came off a backwards pass from Tagovailoa — started things off and true freshman Keilan Robinson’s 74-yard touchdown run with 13 seconds left in the third quarter effectively capped the explosive rushing performance Saturday.
Junior tailback Najee Harris added 68 rushing yards on 12 carries and an 8-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter while fellow junior Brian Robinson Jr. had a bounce-back showing averaging 5.2 yards per carry Saturday (57 yards on 11 rushes) after averaging just 1 yard per carry last week.
Alabama might have finally found its solution at kicker after true freshman Will Reichard connected on field goals of 48 and 49 yards Saturday after missing two of the same length last week.
Reichard, who also kicked off and punted in the game, capped the Crimson Tide’s first-half effort with a 48-yard try from the right hash marks that sailed right down the center of the uprights to give Alabama a 38-0 lead with 1:04 left in the second quarter.
Reichard’s second field goal came with 1:40 left in the third to cap a 4-play, 5-yard drive off a recovered fumble by sophomore cornerback Josh Jobe at the Aggies’ 36.
The kicking game has been an issue at Alabama the last several years and Reichard’s ability to connect from 45-plus yards with consistency is a welcomed sight for Tide fans who have often held their breath on such kicks.
“That was awesome,” Tagovailoa said of Reichard’s field goals. “I don’t want to bash any of the other kickers that we’ve had, but it’s really good to know that we have someone that we can really trust to (make kicks). … Having the trust with Will being able to kick the ball and knowing how accurate he is, it helps us.”
With New Mexico State utilizing an Air Raid attack offensively, frequently working with four receivers, Alabama spent much of the day in the dime defensively.
That meant an additional defensive back was necessary, and the Crimson Tide coaches turned to true freshman safety Jordan Battle to fill that role.
Battle started and lined up opposite senior safety Jared Mayden as the two deep safeties with junior Xavier McKinney and senior Shyheim Carter in the six-defensive back set.
“I love Jordan Battle,” Saban said last week. “He's a really good player. He's going to contribute to our team this year. He is one of the young players on our team that seems to be able to stay focused and improve and make plays every day.”
Battle gave Alabama four true freshmen starters on defense along with nose guard D.J. Dale and inside linebackers Christian Harris and Shane Lee. Battle and Lee finished tied with five tackles apiece Saturday.
Battle’s emergence further helps the Tide secondary build quality depth in a unit that was decimated by injuries and lack of experience last season.
Senior cornerback Trevon Diggs had to be helped off the field with leg cramps midway through the third quarter after he chased down New Mexico State receiver Tony Nichols from behind on a 44-yard gain inside Alabama’s 5-yard line on the Aggies’ lone touchdown drive of the game.
“He was cramping up, he’s fine,” Saban said of Diggs.