Despite Sluggish Start, Alabama Cruises Past Middle Tennessee State
Alabama’s quarterbacks both had their opportunity to audition for the starting job, but there’s still no clear winner yet heading into next week’s revenge game against Ole Miss.
Both Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman played a half each, though neither overly stood out in helping lead No. 2 Alabama to a 37-10 victory over Middle Tennessee State on Saturday.
The Crimson Tide, playing in its home opener, was far from mistake-free, beginning at quarterback. Each threw an interception – Coker in the first half, Bateman in the second – that coach Nick Saban himself described as “bad decisions.”
“I think both guys really need to improve,” Saban said. “I think that, offensively, we started to establish an identity, I thought, against Wisconsin. I don’t think we had much of one today, but that not all the quarterback’s fault.
“But there are many things that the quarterbacks can do better and we will certainly focus on trying to get them to play better. We will evaluate the situation and do what’s best for our team.”
In addition to their interceptions, Coker, in his second consecutive start for Alabama, passed for 214 yards and one touchdown on 15 of 24 passing, while Bateman went 11-for-17 for 98 yards and a score. Each quarterback, coincidentally, played eight series apiece.
Still, despite his gripes about both quarterbacks’ play, Saban did tip his hand slightly toward Coker when asked if one was closer than the other of winning the job.
“I think we’re closer. We started Jake two games in a row. I think there’s a reason for that,” he said.
Alabama (2-0), which plays Ole Miss – the only team to beat the Crimson Tide in the regular season last year – at home in its Southeastern Conference opener next week, received a handful early from a similar-styled Blue Raiders team.
Through one quarter Saturday, Alabama, a 35-point favorite, led 7-0, but was outgained in all areas but the score by Middle Tennessee, who held a 120-66 total offensive yards advantage after the first intermission.
After Alabama recovered a forced fumble on Middle Tennessee’s first play from scrimmage, the Blue Raiders, on their next three drives: missed a field goal within reasonable range, lost another fumble on a botched snap on the UA 13 and reached as far as the 3-yard line before settling for a 20-yard field goal from Cody Clark to make it 7-3 with 13 minutes left in the half.
Then, Alabama seemingly found its groove.
Running back Derrick Henry, who rushed for 96 yards, scoring three touchdowns for the second straight game, capped off the next two drives with two short runs into the end zone within the Blue Raiders 2-yard line to push it 21-3.
“I think when you play games like this, I told the players that if you don’t have the right intensity and the right focus, you’re going to get exposed,” Saban said. “These teams that you play are all good enough to expose you if you don’t have the right focus and intensity on what you’re doing to go out there and execute and do the job and finish.”
Collectively, Alabama ultimately dominated statistically, outgaining Middle Tennessee 532-275.
Kenyan Drake, in a split role with Henry at running back, caught five passes out of the backfield for 91 yards, including a 69-yard reception downed at the 1 and a 14-yard score on a pass from Bateman.
Tight end O.J. Howard caught a career-high four receptions for 68 yards in the win, including one 42-yard pickup. Sophomore wideout Robert Foster caught his second touchdown pass in as many games on a 19-yard screen pass in the first quarter.
Defensively, Alabama forced four turnovers (three fumbles, one interception), a point of emphasis for the team in recent weeks, as well as a general goal coming into this season.
“Coach (Mel) Tucker, Coach (Kirby) Smart, and Coach Saban have been preaching all week about turnovers,” said senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, who was credited with 7.5 tackles (1 for loss) and a forced fumble in the win.
Bateman’s interception midway through the fourth quarter, however, proved detrimental for a Tide defense that held Middle Tennessee mostly in check after its made field goal try.
With Alabama on the MTSU 20, Bateman threw a pick that was returned 77 yards the other way, setting up backup quarterback and Tuscaloosa native Austin Grammer’s 15-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Rod Ducksworth in the end zone. It was his only pass of the game.
“It was something I’ve dreamed about since I was 4 or 5 years old, watching this team and this atmosphere, as a young fan growing up,” said Grammer, a redshirt junior who played at American Christian Academy, on throwing a touchdown pass against his childhood team.
Middle Tennessee (1-1), which plays in Conference USA, hosts Charlotte next week in its conference opener.