TUSCALOOSA — With both hands gripping either side of the podium, Nick Saban opened Saturday’s press conference with a question of his own for two “media coaches” in the back of the room.
“I’ve got some questions for you: a’ight, you’ve got the player of the year in college football (Tua Tagovailoa) on your team, you’ve got the guy that won the Biletnikoff playing receiver (Jerry Jeudy),” Saban asked with no sense of levity. “We’ve got more guys coming back on offense than probably any team in the country. (So) what went wrong? This is the kind of s*** you ask me all the time: what went wrong?”
It was a question that was likely on the minds of plenty of Alabama fans after another less-than-encouraging performance by the Crimson Tide’s first-team offense in the annual A-Day spring game, where the White team — made up of the first-team defense and second-team offense — rolled to a convincing 31-17 victory over their Crimson counterparts Saturday.
Rising junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the reigning Heisman Trophy runner-up and Maxwell and Walter Camp national player of the year last season, struggled with consistency in his first game-like situation under the direction of new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Tagovailoa finished with 265 yards on 19-of-37 passing with the lone bright spot a 54-yard touchdown to Jerry Jeudy late in the game.
“It’s kind of hard to gauge everything because we’re kind of limited in what formations we can run and the plays we can run, so you can’t really gauge (anyone’s performance) off of that,” Tagovailoa said. “But I think (Sarkisian) did a good job, it was just us as an offense not executing the way we needed to.”
Even with Tagovailoa running point much of the game, the Crimson offense managed just 317 total yards Saturday and was just 4-of-15 on third downs.
Meanwhile, the White team racked up 396 yards of total offense thanks to 271 yards and two touchdowns on 19-of-23 passing from sophomore backup quarterback Mac Jones, along with another 93 yards on 6-of-9 passing from freshman Taulia Tagovailoa, Tua’s little brother.
Of course, Saban downplayed the significance of the second-team’s offensive performance, repeatedly pointing out the talent disparity in the defenses each team faced Saturday.
“Look, these spring games, don’t read too much into it,” Saban said. “The good guys (starters) played against the good guys, so the coverage was tighter, the tackling was better — everything was better when the ones were playing against the ones. When the twos were playing against the twos, not so much.”
In reality, neither offense did exceptionally well Saturday, especially on the ground with a combined 45 total rushing yards between the two squads, including just 13 from a first-team unit that was led by junior tailback Najee Harris and featured a banged-up offensive line.
Junior right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. was relegated to the sidelines with a walking boot after severely spraining his left ankle in last week’s scrimmage, and his replacement Saturday, senior Matt Womack, suffered a shoulder injury Saban hinted might require offseason attention.
While acknowledging the offensive line struggles, Saban refused to make any excuses for the lack of ground production Saturday.
“I know we had a few offensive linemen out,” Saban said, “Matt Womack hurt his shoulder a little bit, so he was out, Jed (Wills Jr.) was already out, so we didn’t have a full complement of offensive linemen, I get that. But we have to be able to run the football better than what we demonstrated in this game.”
Among the issues that plagued Alabama’s starting offense included several untimely drops by some key players, including one from last year’s Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy on a third-and-3 inside the red zone that led to a 34-yard field goal to put the Crimson team ahead 10-3 early in the second quarter.
Mac Jones responded with a pair of touchdown drives on the White team’s last two series before halftime with touchdown passes of 29 and 22 yards to tight end Kedrick James and Xavier Williams for a 17-10 lead at the break.
“The difference in the game is the red team drops the ball on third-and-2 in the red zone, aight, so left 4 points off the board, and the next time they’re going 2-minute and the guy drops a pass and the other team goes 2-minute and scores a touchdown,” Saban said. “So you took an opportunity away from yourself to score and let the other team go score. That’s like a 10-point swing in a game.”