ATLANTA — For 15 agonizing minutes, Alabama’s high-powered offense sputtered to get going Saturday.
But with the start of the second quarter, junior running back Najee Harris took a swing pass 54 yards down the Crimson Tide sideline on his first play of the game.
Although the result was negated by a holding call against freshman guard Evan Neal, it signaled the return of the sort of explosive plays that defined Alabama’s school record-breaking offense last season.
"You're going to deal with adversity and it's just how you move on — the next-play mentality, that's what we've got to have," Crimson Tide junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. "That was a great play by Naj, but he understood it got taken back and we just got to continue to work on the next play and hopefully it's as successful."
Harris was one of four players — along with fellow running back Brian Robinson Jr., receiver DeVonta Smith and linebacker Terrell Lewis — forced to sit out the first quarter of Saturday’s 42-3 season-opening win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic as part of internal team discipline levied by head coach Nick Saban for reportedly missing a preseason team function.
"You know what, a couple of players weren't playing early in the game, so we had some young players playing at some positions ... (so it may be) first-game jitters," Saban said. "I'm not making excuses for anybody, we need to be able to start fast and finish strong, and we'll certainly look into it."
Without going into any specifics, Lewis made it clear the penalty was deserved and came as a result of veterans failing to uphold the team's elevated standard of excellence.
“I had to take one on the chin for basically not doing what I’d expect everybody else to do,” Lewis said of being suspended. “Being a leader, I’ve got to set the example for the younger guys to follow. I did something that I wouldn’t want a younger guy to do. So I had to take that discipline on the chin.”
Of course, it wasn't long before it was Duke quarterback Quentin Harris taking it on the chin from Lewis, who sacked the Blue Devils senior for an 8-yard loss on the third defensive play of the second quarter.
"It was important to set the tone as far as I know my role on the team and I was already anxious to play in general, so just adding onto that ... it was about time to make my presence felt," Lewis said.
Without the three offensive starters, including its top two running backs, the Crimson Tide offense was outgained by Duke 22-6 through the first two offensive series, the second of which ended on a lost fumble by third-string tailback Jerome Ford, who made his first career start in place of Harris and Robinson.
Tagovailoa finally jump-started things on the third series with a couple of consecutive completions to last season’s Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy and sophomore Jaylen Waddle, but the drive stalled when a 49-yard field goal attempt from freshman kicker Will Reichard clanked off the right upright to keep the game scoreless with 3:25 left in the opening quarter.
But as both teams flipped the field with the start of the second quarter, and Harris and Smith took the field for the first time, Alabama’s offense found its rhythm going to the air with three consecutive passes from Tagovailoa to Smith for 22 yards across midfield.
"It was just getting out the ball quick, going fast, not letting the defense be able to get their calls from the sideline, and just going with it," Tagovailoa said. "It kind of put them in a bind, they were very indecisive on what they wanted to do as far as where their front was, where the backers would go, where the DBs would go, and we just went from there."
Five plays later, Tagovailoa found the end zone for the first time on a 27-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Miller Forristall for a 7-0 advantage in the first 4:58 of the quarter.
Waddle turned Tagovailoa’s next pass into a 39-yard gain, and Smith moved the ball inside the 5 with a 24-yard completion before Robinson capped the series with a 1-yard touchdown run two plays later for a 14-0 lead.
"(We're) the Rydeouts, so right when we step on the field (together), we've all got that connection and that energy to keep it going and keep moving, start making plays," Jeudy said, referring to the nickname Alabama's Top 4 receivers call themselves. "Once that happened, that energy, that flow just keeps on rolling."
Tagovailoa ended the second quarter a perfect 9-of-9 passing for 145 yards en route to his 26-of-31 night, finishing with 336 yards and four touchdowns on the afternoon, leaving the field late in the third quarter once Alabama was up 35-3.
"Well he's incredible ... he's accurate, he's poised, his release is so compact and simple and quick, he can throw on the run," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said of Tagovailoa. "I've studied him now ... (and) I think he's going to be a great quarterback this year, and he will play in the National Football League a long time. He's going to be a great player."
Jeudy sparked the offense with 137 receiving yards on 10 receptions, while Waddle had 90 yards, and Smith added 54. Ford led Alabama's pedestrian ground game that only managed 145 rushing yards for the game with 10 carries for 64 yards in the game. Harris finished with 52.
Saban credited some of that inconsistency on the ground to Duke's defensive approach and some failures up front with an offensive line that featured three new starters in the middle, including the freshman Neal.
"I would say that we need to do better up front, probably on a consistent basis," Saban said. "I think pass protection was pretty good for the most part, and we were able to operate and get the ball in a lot of playmakers' hands on the perimeter, and that was the difference in the game. You know, there's obviously things that I'm sure when we watch the film we're going to — every player is going to say we could do better, and I don't think it'll be any different up front.”