Alabama Football: Grading Steve Sarkisian’s performance vs. Duke

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Crimson Tide fans are always ready to pounce on an Alabama football Offensive Coordinator. Steve Sarkisian went into Saturday with a history of Crimson Tide failure.

Historically, until a new Alabama football coach loses a big game, Crimson Tide fans are always ready to revere their head football coach. Assistant coaches, particularly offensive coordinators don’t get such a honeymoon. They are doubted from day one.

There is no acceptable margin of imperfection. There is no averaging out plusses versus minuses. For the current Alabama football OC, Steve Sarkisian it is even worse. He will never be forgiven for the Crimson Tide losing the 2016 National Championship game.

None of this acrimony matters to Nick Saban. In bringing Sarkisian back, Saban showed confidence in him.  And it is not like Saban wants an OC to design an offense. Saban gave Lane Kiffin considerable leeway to modify the Tide offense. Late in Kiffin’s time in Tuscaloosa, Saban was weary from Lane, on the sidelines and elsewhere. Previous OCs had to work inside a Nick Saban, balanced offense system. So does Steve Sarkisian.

Balance does not mean an equal mix of running and passing plays. It does not mean yardage gained must be nearly equal for the run and the pass. What it means is efficiency. Simply stated, it is taking advantage of the offensive opportunities least prioritized by opposing defenses.

Two games into Steve Sarkisian’s Alabama football OC career, he did that well on Saturday. Finding that balance did not start Saturday afternoon in Atlanta. It started months before in reshaping the risk-taking tendencies of Tua Tagovailoa. Tua learned the Saban-Sark lessons. In his own words from a recent ESPN interview with Kirk Herbstreit, Tua learned he can “never go wrong taking a profit.”

On Saturday, Duke hoped to play defensive percentages. Defending Tua’s home run threat was given the highest priority. Tua described Sark’s response.

"We had to keep it short and have our players work in field."

‘In field’ means attacking the edges, the space available on underneath routes, using quick throws and bubble screens. All those wrinkles are key components in Sarkisian’s offense. The other important feature in a Sarkisian offense is using tight ends. Tua completed two of his four touchdown passes to tight ends.

Nick Saban was more detailed in discussing the Tide’s offensive response.

"We just decided, hey, the way they’re playing, we’re going to have to throw the ball on first down and get the ball to our playmakers’ hands on the perimeter and make them play on the perimeter, and when we started doing that, I think that those guys made a lot of plays"

Because of repeatedly “taking a profit” the Crimson Tide finished with 512 yards of offense. The output was not balanced in terms of rushing and passing yards. A less than stellar performance by the offensive line diminished the Tide’s rushing output. Still, Sarkisian did not abandon the running game. Tua and Mac Jones threw 36 passes. Crimson Tide running backs carried the ball 33 times.

Because the Crimson Tide was not consistently effective running the ball, or because on one play, when Sarkisian called a sweep on third-and-seven, Tide fans will complain about Sark’s play-calling. For the record, that particular sweep did not work.

While those whining about Steve Sarkisian may persist, Alabama football fans might consider those same complaints are about the Nick Saban offense. Against Duke, Saban’s offensive philosophy, as articulated by Sarkisian, was effective. It was less predictable than last season’s overly dependent RPO offense. And it minimized hits on Tua.

So we ask Alabama fans – isn’t a smarter Tua and thereby a smarter Alabama football offense something Steve Sarkisian deserves some credit for? At least for one game?

Next. Tua going forward by taking a step back.. dark

Speaking of taking what the defense gives you – there will be much to take Saturday in Tuscaloosa. At halftime Saturday night, the Aggies had surrendered 366 yards and 35 points to Washington  State.