Arkansas at No. 1 Alabama:

Alabama defense fine, as usual; Tide offense no slouch

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, October 13, 2017
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) celebrates after rushing for a touchdown against Texas A&M during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) celebrates after rushing for a touchdown against Texas A&M during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Typically, Alabama's dominating defense has been the headline attraction under Coach Nick Saban for the past decade.

But how about that offense?

Under first-year coordinator Brian Daboll, who brought an extensive NFL resume to Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide are offensive chart toppers on many SEC fronts heading into Saturday's 6:15 p.m. game against the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Alabama leads the SEC in total offense with 483 yards per game, in rushing with 301.7 yards per game and in scoring with 43 points per game.

That output, with quarterback Jalen Hurts handling the reins, has helped the Crimson Tide (6-0, 3-0 SEC) anchor down at No. 1 in both national polls.

Hurts, a sophomore with big-play potential in both the run and pass games, leads the Tide with 517 rushing yards, just ahead of tailback Damien Harris (500 yards) and has 5 rushing touchdowns.

He has completed 63.1 percent of his passes (70 of 111) behind a solid line, and has thrown for 870 yards and 7 touchdowns. Hurts has not thrown an interception in his past 8 games, dating back to last year's Iron Bowl against Auburn.

"They are a very explosive offense and they've got weapons everywhere you turn and it starts with the quarterback," Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said, pointing out that Hurts' rushing yards have not come about strictly on scrambles. " It's designed quarterback runs and he makes them go."

Arkansas defensive end McTelvin Agim noted how Hurts has improved since his freshman season.

"His arm has gotten better," Agim said. "He knows when to take off and run with it. He knows when to sit in the pocket better now. His legs have gotten better. He looks like he's faster this year. ... He's like Joe Cool back there. He's just calm the whole time."

Saban said he wanted to see Hurts progress as a passer, and he has delivered.

"Obvoiusly we still have room to improve," Saban said. "I'm not talking just about Jalen, but I'm talking about as an overall team so we have the kind of balance that we need. But he's been a good decision-maker and played very well, kept his eyes downfield and has made some nice plays in the passing game."

Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said Dabol has added layers to the Razorbacks' defensive preparation by giving Saban the offensive balance he craves.

"They're probably a little bit more tempo," Bielema said. "Compared to a year ago, they have a huge number of different formations that allow, obviously, each game a little bit more game-planning ... so that's a little bit of a change-up offensively that's pretty glaring."

Arkansas inside linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves said Hurts, 6-2, 218 pounds, is like having another running back.

"It's big time because you've got to tackle a running back and think about tackling him too," Hargreaves said. "It makes for a tough day.

"If it looks like it's going to be a pass that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a pass. He can beat you and go get a first down. ... Our job playing behind the line is to play the run and the pass, so in addition to tackling those other big jokers out there, we've got to tackle him too."

Hurts has been the centerpiece for Alabama, but playmakers abound for Daboll, who is Saban's sixth offensive coordinator in his tenure with the Tide, following Major Applewhite (2007), Jim McElwain (2008-2011), Doug Nussmeier (2012-2013), Lane Kiffin (2014-2016), and Steve Sarkisian, who coordinated the College Football Playoff title game last year.

Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Najee Harris provide the Tide with three hard-to-tackle backs.

Harris, 221 pounds, averages 8.5 yards per carry and has scored 7 touchdowns.

Scarbrough, 6-2, 235, averages 4.5 yards per carry on his 294 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns.

Freshman Najee Harris checks in at 6-2, 227, and has rushed for 199 yards and 1 touchdown while averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

"I think they're a run-first team," Arkansas nose guard Bijhon Jackson said. "We've just got to, when it comes to the run, stay where we're supposed to be, stay in our gaps and up front we've just got to knock those guys back."

Arkansas' defense is No. 59 against the run (149 yards per game), and has allowed 8 rushing touchdowns, a 21 TD pace, which is a major improvement over last fall, when it permitted a school-record 39 rushing touchdowns.

Opposing quarterbacks had scored 6 rushing touchdowns on the Hogs through 5 games in 2016, and the figure is at 1 -- by New Mexico State's Tyler Rogers.

Rhoads wasn't happy with the defense's tackling and yards allowed after contact last week in a 48-22 loss at South Carolina, an item that had not been a big issue early in the season.

"We had three games that we really tackled well this season," Rhoads said. "We did not tackle well on Saturday."

Alabama's offensive talent extends to the tight ends and wide receivers, where Calvin Ridley is the standout, but many younger players are developing.

Ridley, a 6-1 junior, caught the go-ahead 81-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter against Arkansas at Bryant-Denny Stadium in a 27-14 Alabama victory two years ago. Ridley has 29 catches for 390 yards and 2 touchdowns against Arkansas.

Robert Foster, Cam Sims and Jerry Jeudy have emerged as playmakers, along with tight ends Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr.

"Calvin Ridley is as good a player as we'll see all season long," Rhoads said. "He's explosive. He's fast. He's dynamic. He's going to carry it. He's going to catch it. He's going to catch it vertically. He's going to catch it underneath.

"The rest of the receiving corps is equally blessed with talent and ability to get open. I think they do a nice combination with their tight ends as far as run and pass game."

At a glance

RECORDS Arkansas 2-3, 0-2 SEC; Alabama 6-0, 3-0 BETTING LINE Alabama favored by 31 COACHES Bret Bielema (27-29 in 5th year at Arkansas, 95-53 in 12th year overall); Nick Saban (125-19 in 11th year at Alabama, 216-61-1 in 22nd year overall) SERIES Alabama leads 20-7 overall, leads 8-3 in Tuscaloosa RADIO Razorback Sports Network, including KABZ-FM 103.7 in Little Rock; KQSM-FM, 92.1, KIGL-FM 93.3, KAKS-FM 99.5 and KUOA-AM 1290 in Fayetteville; KERX-FM 95.3 in Fort Smith, Sirius 137, XM 190

Sports on 10/13/2017

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