Alabama Football Home Opener Marred by Defensive Breakdowns
A dancing Phidarian Mathis emerged from the Bryant-Denny Stadium tunnel around 1:45 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, his energetic moves only intensifying as he stepped into the sunlight and the booming stadium music. As the team prepared to make its customary sprint to the sideline, Mathis jumped around and waved his arms with wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and Xavier Williams.
With no spring game and a delayed regular season due to COVID-19, it had been 314 days since the last college football game in Tuscaloosa.
"It's been a long time since we've been in here," Mathis said. "Last week Coach said we needed more energy on the sideline all game, so I just felt like I should take on on that and get the team ready for every situation."
Walking off the field after the 52-24 win, Mathis was still full of enthusiasm, jumping up and down and high-fiving fans as he went back to the locker room.
"Phil brings a ton of energy to practice every single day, meetings and everything," linebacker Christian Harris said. "He comes to the game [and] he's one of the loudest people on the field. You could've saw he was probably dancing during the game, like during the little timeouts and stuff. It's always good to have somebody like that on the field to help pick up the energy."
It could be difficult to keep the same positivity after the defense allows 450 yards and allows the offense to go 10 of 17 on third down, but coach Nick Saban wasn’t too distraught.
“I thought the way we played the game was kind of how we needed to play it,” Saban said. “If we could eliminate the big plays that came, several of them, on mental errors, I think we would’ve played better. We have to play better on third down. We’ve got to be able to get off the field on third down.”
On the Aggies’ first drive of the second half, quarterback Kellen Mond threw a 15-yard pass to tight end Jalen Wydermyer on third-and-7. Three plays later Mond found receiver Chase Lane for another 15-yard gain on third-and-12, and three plays after that, the Aggies would have converted a third-and-11 inside the 5-yard line if Wydermyer hadn’t dropped the ball.
Wydermyer had two touchdowns against the Crimson Tide last year and was a more consistent threat on Saturday, catching 8 passes for 82 yards on 10 targets.
“We had a tough time covering the tight end [Wydermyer], who I think is an outstanding player, maybe one of the better tight ends in the country. 85 was a problem for us. … It wasn’t like we weren’t all over the guy; he’s just a big-body guy that can catch the ball,” Saban said. “When you make mental errors and you don’t cover [running backs and tight ends], that’s a problem.”
Running back Ainias Smith, a converted wide receiver, had an even more prolific day, catching 6 passes for 123 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Smith’s first touchdown was a short throw to the flat in the first quarter that he took all the way to the end zone after a missed tackle by safety Daniel Wright. Wright later atoned for the mistake by intercepting Mond and returning it 47 yards, the same distance as Smith’s touchdown.
Mond, the dual-threat quarterback who — excluding sacks — rushed for more than 100 yards against Alabama in each of the last two years, made some plays through the air but was bottled up on the ground. He rushed for just 19 yards on Saturday.
Freshman defensive back Malachi Moore was one of the bright spots in the secondary, breaking up two passes and shedding a block for a run stop on the first drive of the game. He had other sideline-to-sideline plays or well-covered routes, but the highlight of his day was recording his first career interception late in the fourth quarter.
“He played a lot better today in terms of everything that he did,” Saban said. “I think that’s a young player from Week 1 to Week 2 seeing the mistakes that he made. And Malachi is one of those guys that really knows how to learn. He uses all the opportunities when he makes a mistake to learn and understand, and I think he understands the big picture pretty well. I think getting an interception today was probably big for his confidence.”