TUSCALOOSA — Jalen Hurts had seen other Top 10 teams fall earlier this weekend, and after last week’s unsatisfying win at Texas A&M, the sophomore quarterback wasn’t going to allow Alabama to succumb to the same poisonous result.
In a 24-hour period in which No. 2 Clemson and No. 5 Auburn both lost, the top-ranked Crimson Tide didn’t waste any time asserting its dominance in Saturday night’s 41-9 victory over Arkansas from Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“We know what’s going on, we see it, and at the end of the day we don’t want it to be us,” Hurts said after the game. “Last week, I think we kind of learned from that, it was humbling. … Hopefully we can continue to take positive steps (forward).”
Alabama junior tailback Damien Harris sparked that mission 15 seconds into the game when he took the game’s opening handoff and cut back across the field for a 75-yard touchdown run — his second such score in as many weeks.
“I think it just kind of set the tempo of the game and showed our opponent that we were coming at (them),” Harris said. “I think we did a good job of that. That was something coach (Nick) Saban emphasized all week.”
Harris eclipsed the century mark for the third time in the last four games, all coming in SEC play, to finish with 125 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries. Harris broke out with a career-high 151 rushing yards and three scores at Vanderbilt and is quickly establishing himself as Alabama’s go-to tailback with 467 rushing yards on 42 combined carries, averaging 11.1 yards per carry in SEC play.
“Talk about impressive,” senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said of Harris. “He’s taking his game to the next level.”
With senior starting quarterback Austin Allen out after injuring his throwing shoulder last weekend, Arkansas turned things over to 6-foot-7, 268-pound freshman backup Cole Kelley.
While admittedly a load to bring down, Alabama’s attacking defense found a way with five sacks — 3 ½ combined by senior middle linebackers Rashaan Evans and Hamilton — to go along with nine tackles for loss.
“I feel like we’re finally starting to gel now,” Evans said.
Kelley managed to create some opportunities for himself, finishing with 200 yards through the air on 23-of-42 passing with one touchdown and one interception, but only after the Crimson Tide defense effectively made the Razorbacks one-dimensional. Meanwhile, Alabama’s offense had no problem moving the ball Saturday, including 496 yards of total offense, 308 of which came on the ground.
“I thought we had good balance on offense, and I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part,” Saban said. “Defensively, we did a good job against their run and forced them to be one-dimensional.”
Beginning with Harris’ first touchdown, the Tide (7-0, 4-0 SEC) scored on its opening three offensive possessions, taking an early 17-0 lead just past the midpoint of first quarter, after Harris scored again on a 4-yard carry with 7:24 remaining in the opening frame.
The Tide struggled over its next four offensive series, including a lost fumble on a muffed punt return by freshman Henry Ruggs III in the closing seconds of the first quarter, but would find its scoring groove before halftime.
With time winding down in the second quarter, Hurts guided the Tide on a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive that was capped by a pair of Hurts runs, including an 11-yard touchdown on a zone-read keeper up the middle to pull ahead 24-0 with 1:20 remaining in the quarter.
Arkansas (2-4, 0-3 SEC) nearly found the end zone in the closing seconds of the half when Kelley more than doubled his previous passing total with a 46-yard completion to Jordan Jones to move into Alabama territory. Following 13- and 14-yard passes to Brandon Martin, the Razorbacks were at the Tide 3-yard line with 3 seconds left when junior safety Ronnie Harrison swatted away a pass over the middle to tight end Cheyenne O’Grady as time expired on the half.
“We just kind of keyed in and everyone was locked in at the end of the drive — we just tried not to give up a touchdown,” Harrison said. “I got the same route earlier in the game so I kind of anticipated it.”
Arkansas would get on the board with a 30-yard field goal by Connor Limpert with 4:16 remaining in the third quarter to cap a 13-play, 48-yard scoring drive that ate up more than five minutes of game clock. The score followed Hurts’ first interception of the season when Razorback safety Kevin Richardson II dove in front of a short pass to senior receiver Cam Sims with 9:34 left in the third.
Hurts went 206 passes between interceptions, the last of which came late in the second quarter of last season’s Iron Bowl, before his third-quarter pick by Richardson. That interception-free ranks second all-time behind only AJ McCarron’s mark of 291 consecutive passes without a pick.
Hurts, who finished 12-of-19 passing for 155 yards to go along with 41 yards on the ground, responded with a 20-yard touchdown strike to freshman receiver Henry Ruggs III to go up 31-3 with 1:25 left in the third quarter. The scoring reception was Ruggs’ fourth of the season, on just four total catches.
Alabama covered the pregame spread to go ahead 38-3 with a 4-yard rushing touchdown by freshman Najee Harris 2 ½ minutes into the fourth quarter and added a 21-yard field goal by Andy Pappanastos to cap the Tide scoring.