ORLANDO, Fla. — Mac Jones and Jerry Jeudy started the New Year’s Day fireworks early, but it was Alabama’s young defense that settled down and pitched a second-half shutout to hold off Michigan in Wednesday’s 35-16 win in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Following a first half in which the Wolverines’ often-meandering offense seemed to have its way, the Crimson Tide (11-2) racked up 480 yards of total offense, including outgaining the Wolverines 275-109 in total yards in the second half to pull away after Michigan led 16-14 going into halftime.
“I'm especially proud of this team,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after the game, “for the adversity that they had to overcome this year, the perseverance that they showed, and the grit that they showed in coming out and playing the way they did in the second half of this game.”
Jones, starting his fourth career game in place of injured star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, paced the Crimson Tide offense with 327 yards and three touchdowns on 16-of-25 passing, with 204 of those yards coming courtesy of Jeudy, including an 85-yard touchdown on Alabama’s first offensive play of the game.
Meanwhile, fellow junior Najee Harris carried the offensive load on the ground — especially in the second half — with 136 rushing yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns, including a 2-yard score with 26 seconds left to seal the victory against the other suitor in Harris’ much-publicized recruitment out of California three years ago.
That offensive firepower proved more than enough as the much-maligned Crimson Tide defense buckled down in the second half and kept Michigan (9-4) on its side of the field for the entire third quarter and just 20 total yards of offense in the fourth.
“It was just about making the calls and making the adjustments and executing the game plan,” senior linebacker Anfernee Jennings said. “We just had to do a better job of executing and we did that in the second half.”
Here are three takeaways from Alabama’s win over Michigan:
1. Young Tide defense settles down for second-half shutout.
Alabama has played much of the season with several key pieces missing defensively, including starting Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl without six projected preseason starters, five from within its defensive front seven.
In their place, the Crimson Tide has relied on talented but inexperienced and mistake-prone youth that has often left a lot to be desired.
That was certainly the case in the first half when Michigan piled up 286 total yards in the first half, including 135 rushing yards to build a 16-14 lead at the break after a 57-yard field goal by kicker Quinn Nordin just before halftime.
Using a more traditional two-wide, two-tight end set, the Wolverines ran right at the Alabama defensive line, gashing a Crimson Tide front seven.
Taking full advantage of its massive and veteran offensive line, Michigan’s tailback tandem of freshman Zach Charbonnet and sophomore Hassan Haskins combined for 120 of the Wolverine’s 135 first-half rushing yards and repeatedly pushed its way into Alabama territory, including on back-to-back drives of more than 80 yards in the first quarter. Michigan led 10-7 by the end of the period.
“They were hurting us running the ball mostly when they were in two tight ends and two receivers, which we tried to play regular,” Saban said.
But the regular alignment wasn’t working as it forced reliable senior nickelback Shyheim Carter to the sideline in favor of sophomore outside linebacker Christopher Allen, who struggled to make the proper reads and run fits in his first career start Wednesday.
“So, in the second half we decided to play nickel, which gives us more multiples of things that we can do,” Saban said. “We're a little smaller on the field when we do that, but it's easier to adjust and the players did a really good job of it and we were able to pressure more, which really helped us stop the run.”
With a more simplified approach defensively, Alabama held the Wolverines to just 109 total yards in the second half, including just 20 in the fourth quarter.
After spending much of its time on Alabama’s side of the field in the first half, Michigan could barely seem to find its way across midfield in the second half, only reaching as far as the Tide 41-yard line twice before either punting or throwing a game-clinching interception on a Hail Mary try as time expired.
2. Ruggs III suffers concussion in 3Q
Wide receiver Henry Ruggs III is among several Crimson Tide juniors who elected to play Wednesday while still weighing their professional options.
That decision was brought up repeatedly as the speedy Ruggs remained motionless on his back after landing hard head-first into the turf on a diving incompletion midway through the third quarter.
Minutes later, an unsteady Ruggs was helped off the field by trainers. He went straight to the team medical tent with what appeared to be concussion-like symptoms. After a few minutes, Ruggs emerged from the tent and walked to Alabama’s locker room flanked by trainers for further evaluation.
Saban said Ruggs entered the team’s “concussion protocol” and it was a “medical decision” that he not return to the game: “Hopefully, he’ll be OK.”
Ruggs finished with two receptions for 27 yards, including a 25-yard catch-and-run on the second play of the third quarter to set up a 42-yard touchdown pass from Jones to fellow junior DeVonta Smith for a 21-16 lead 1½ minutes into the second half.
3. Tide’s kicking curse means perfection for opponents.
While Alabama’s kicking situation continues to cause Crimson Tide fans heart palpitations, opposing teams have found much better luck in that department.
Nordin’s 57-yard field goal was the 20th consecutive field goal made by opposing kickers against Alabama this season as opponents remained perfect on the season.
Nordin also had field goals of 36 and 42 yards in the first- and second-quarter before his go-ahead 57-yarder just before the half.
Alex Byington in the Montgomery Advertiser's Alabama beat reporter. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @_AlexByington.