College football: Week 3 special teams spotlight — Alabama
One of the main themes of the early portion of the 2016-17 college football season has been movement within the AP Top 25.
Some teams have seen their stock fall of late despite continuing to win and remaining unbeaten (Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin), while others are left barely clinging on to their respective rankings after a tough start to the season (Oklahoma, Ole Miss).
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Week 3 featured plenty of shake-ups as well, including: Ohio State dismantling Oklahoma to take the No. 2 spot; Louisville toppling Florida State and rising to No 3; Michigan State defeating Notre Dame to climb to No. 8; and, Nebraska taking down Oregon to earn a spot in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2014.
All the while, the constant has been the team at the top of the pile — the Alabama Crimson Tide.
It’s easy to wax poetic about Nick Saban as a coach, or the program in general, but Alabama continues to show up and find ways to win despite unfortunate circumstances.
That’s what the best teams in college football do, and it’s exactly what happened when Alabama traveled to meet Ole Miss in Week 3.
A 23-yard touchdown run by Mississippi running back Akeem Judd opened the scoring just about two minutes into the game, and before long, the Rebels were off and running to the tune of a 24-3 lead late in the second quarter.
Some Ole Miss faithful may have already been planning to celebrate the third straight year where their team knocked off Alabama (Bama had won the 10 previous meetings dating back to 2004), but the Crimson Tide had other plans in mind.
Unfortunately, Alabama and head coach Nick Saban are no strangers to slow starts.
As a result, that normally means a big play on offense or a touchdown from the defense or special teams unit is needed to kickstart a run. Mind you, Alabama has scored 50 non-offensive touchdowns since Saban took the helm in 2007, so no one hits the panic button if the offense stalls a bit early on in the game.
On this day though, a big play in the special teams department helped turn Alabama’s collective fortune.
In the early stages of Saturday’s game the Rebels gave the Crimson Tide all they could handle. Ole Miss led 24-3 late in the first half after defensive lineman John Youngblood scooped up a fumble by Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and ran it back 44 yards for a touchdown.
A 3-play, 50-yard drive got Bama to 24-10 when Calvin Ridley scored from six yards out, and a quick three-and-out from Ole Miss had Alabama poised to get the ball back.
That’s when senior defensive back Eddie Jackson turned it on: Cue the spotlight.
Jackson fielded a 53-yard punt from Ole Miss’ Will Gleeson around the 15-yard line and had plenty of daylight to work with in front of him.
Jackson received the ball about seven yards from the closest defender, which is a huge running lane for any returner. He began up the right hash but quickly cut out to his right to help set up the blockers he had downfield (you could even see him directing traffic with his left hand during the return). Another in-and-out move sent Jackson even wider toward the numbers, and that's where a footrace down the sideline ensued.
Punting to your opponent with just under 90 seconds to play in any quarter is normally a pretty decent scenario to work from defensively, but CBS broadcaster Verne Lundquist — who is working his final season of SEC football — made a very important observation.
"They use two punters, this is the rugby-style punt," Lundquist said.
Given the influx of Australian punters in college football and the game's recent penchant for rugby-style punting — a punt where a player runs at an angle toward the line of scrimmage and kicks on the move to add momentum to the kick — it's worth noting that the trend actually factored into the outcome of the play here.
Traditional punts, which rotate end-over-end, can bounce toward or away from the kicker due to the spin that is created on the ball, but the hangtime allows teams to manage better coverage of the punt. On the other hand, rugby-style punts normally benefit from added topspin and a lower point of trajectory, which tends to produce kicks that travel farther initially, and more often than not bounce forward, adding additional yardage after impact.
There's also a school of thought that believes it's easier for the kickers to place their kicks with rugby-style punting, while simultaneously making it tougher for returners to field the punts, but that's an argument for another day.
Herein lies the fatal flaw: the trade-off between the hangtime and distance of a punt versus the kicking team's ability to get coverage downfield and in position to cover the kick and bring down the ballcarrier.
Gleeson of Ole Miss, who hails from Melbourne, Australia, may just be a victim of circumstance, but the first mistake Ole Miss made was outkicking its coverage.
A chance for the Jackson to flaunt his breakaway speed is exactly the game-changing play that Alabama needed. The rest is history. Jackson may still be adjusting to his transition from cornerback to safety — a role he has taken to quite nicely — but he's certainly no stranger to the big play with nine career interceptions.
Alabama came out in the second half and scored the first 10 points to take a 27-24 lead, but more importantly, the tide (pun intended) of the game shifted on one play. Alabama would go on to emerge victorious, 48-43, but who knows where the Crimson Tide would have been if not for that jolt before halftime?
It's unclear whether or not Alabama had designs for a different blocking scheme on the return for Gleeson's kicks, but this play shows the poise that Alabama has a team. Despite being down two scores on the road, there's no panic. In fact, Alabama may just have had Ole Miss right where they wanted them.
Good luck getting the oft tight-lipped Nick Saban to divulge any secrets there, but in the meantime, just enjoy what was an instant classic in the age-old Alabama-Ole Miss rivalry. Eddie Jackson and the Crimson Tide sure did.