Alabama escapes USF: First thoughts on Tyler Buchner, Ty Simpson and a messy win

It wasn’t pretty, but No. 10 Alabama improved to 2-1 with a 17-3 win on Saturday at South Florida in a game that was delayed in the second quarter by severe weather. Alabama still hasn’t lost consecutive regular-season games since 2007. Here are some initial takeaways:

Buchner, Simpson create more QB questions

The biggest storyline entering Saturday’s contest was Alabama’s ongoing quarterback competition. Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner got the start, and it was revealed pregame that Ty Simpson would be the No. 2 with previous starter Jalen Milroe as the No. 3.

Saturday’s result produced more questions than answers.

Buchner completed only 5-of-14 passes for 34 yards, leading zero scoring drives. Buchner largely looked uncomfortable and was unable to accurately place the ball even on short timing routes. After five drives and 78 yards total, Nick Saban opted for Simpson.

Simpson was much more impressive in his first significant snaps as an Alabama quarterback: 5-for-9 passing for 73 yards, a rushing touchdown that sealed the game and zero turnovers. All 17 of Alabama’s points came under Simpson’s direction. He deserves credit for taking care of the ball when pressured throughout the game. His best play came on a 45-yard completion to tight end CJ Dippre that set up the first touchdown in the third quarter.

Simpson also forced South Florida to jump offside late in the fourth quarter with the score 10-3. That first down set up Simpson’s quarterback sneak into the end zone to put the game away. Circumstances considered, it was a solid debut.

What will happen next? Milroe didn’t play on Saturday, so what does that mean after he started the first two games? How will Saban evaluate Buchner and Simpson? And ultimately, who will start against Ole Miss? The questions can’t help but linger.

An overall bad day offensively

The quarterback play leads the discussion, but it was a disastrous day all around for Alabama’s offense. Saturday’s game brought a rare occurrence for Saban teams: five consecutive punts to begin the game. Alabama’s first points, on a 30-yard field goal by Will Reichard, were set up by a forced fumble by the defense that put the ball at the South Florida 25-yard line.

One of Alabama’s main issues offensively last week against Texas was it was too reliant on explosive plays. Saturday’s game brought more of the same. Sixty-eight percent of Alabama’s total yardage (213 of 310) came via explosive plays (pass plays of 15-plus yards, run plays of 10-plus yards). At halftime, the offense averaged just 2.4 yards per play (31 plays total) beyond the four explosive plays that accounted for 59 yards. Most of the offensive production came from the Tide’s running backs. Seniors Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams each averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry and combined for eight big runs. Williams’ 129 rushing yards will earn him high praise.

But no group on Alabama’s team disappointed more than the offensive line that surrendered five sacks to South Florida’s defense, all while Simpson operated the offense (the final drive of the second quarter onward). It’s worth noting that despite being a captain on Saturday, starting guard Tyler Booker did not play, with Terrence Ferguson II in his place at left guard. For the second week in row the Tide’s offensive line didn’t handle pressure well. It also surrendered sacks from four-man rushes.

It was a particularly tough day for freshman left tackle Kadyn Proctor, who struggled against faster, athletic edge rushers.

A bounce-back day for the defense

South Florida made a few big plays, but the Tide largely kept the Bulls’ offense at bay. The only score surrendered was a result of a Kool-Aid McKinstry muffed punt in Alabama territory, leading to a 44-yard field goal.

The 182 rushing yards allowed may seem glaring at first glance, but most of them were from quarterback Byrum Brown, who frequently escaped the pocket and recorded long runs on broken plays. Without Brown’s yardage, the Bulls averaged just 3.7 yards per rush.

Brown wasn’t much of a passing threat, but Alabama’s secondary didn’t allow a single big play and created a turnover on an interception by Malachi Moore late that helped seal the win. The pass rush also came alive with four sacks, led by 2.5 by Dallas Turner.

Saturday’s result hardly will ease any angst within the fan base with Ole Miss coming to Tuscaloosa next weekend, but it was refreshing to see a defensive performance without communication issues and penalties — although open-field tackling will need to be cleaned up next week.

Penalties and special teams issues

The Tide had significantly fewer penalties on Saturday (five for 35 yards) than the Texas game (1o for 90), but costly mistakes took opportunities away. The first came when Terrion Arnold’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was negated by a holding penalty on Jeremiah Alexander. In the second half, a McKinstry interception was erased by a face-mask penalty by Turner. Late in the fourth quarter, a holding penalty wiped away a Williams touchdown.

Those penalties weren’t consequential to the outcome of the game, but Alabama has had four touchdowns negated by penalty in the last two weeks. Additionally, McKinstry’s muffed punt allowed for USF to score its only points. The margin for error in all three phases for this Alabama team is lower than in past years, and penalties and special teams blunders in critical moments will hurt more once SEC play begins.

(Photo of Tyler Buchner: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

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