COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It was one of those vintage Nick Saban moments — a winning Alabama locker room that, to some, might have sounded more like a losing one.
But not to his players.
“We gotta clean it up, and he’s going to let us know that no matter what the scoreboard says,” senior receiver Jermaine Burton said. “That’s our standard — Alabama’s standard.”
That standard was good enough Saturday to earn Alabama its biggest victory of the season, a 26-20 mistake-filled win over Texas A&M in the most hostile of environments before a packed house at Kyle Field.
Down deep, Saban was proud of his team’s steely resolve to somehow overcome 14 penalties, a touchdown called back after Chris Braswell returned a blocked field goal attempt and the mismanagement of the clock at the end of the game.
“This may be the record game for me in terms of messing up and still winning, if you take the mess-ups and the penalties and add them up altogether,” said Saban, forcing a wry smile. “But then you look at the other side of all that, and what kind of resilience and ability to overcome adversity does somebody have when you’re talking about the kind of competitive spirit you have on your team — which I will take any day because we can fix the other stuff?”
There were some around the college football world that left Alabama for dead after its 34-24 loss at home to Texas in Week 2 and then a horrid showing offensively a week later in a 17-3 win at South Florida. But, now, at the midway point of the season, the No. 11 Crimson Tide (5-1, 3-0) are the only unbeaten team in the SEC’s Western Division in league play and head home for their next three games.
“Next game up, next man up,” said Burton, who had a career day with nine catches for 197 yards and two touchdowns. “That’s always going to be the mentality around here.”
Nobody has embraced that mentality more than quarterback Jalen Milroe, who has stayed the course, becoming more comfortable as Alabama’s “point guard” — as Saban has implored him to be — and starting to make more winning plays than the kind of plays that landed him on the bench the entirety of the South Florida game.
As Milroe exited the field Saturday, the Alabama fans in the corner of that end zone showered him with cheers. Milroe put a hand up to his ear as if to say, “I can’t hear you,” and the cheers grew only louder. He finished 21-of-33 for 321 yards and three touchdowns. And as a telltale sign of his growth, he didn’t allow an ugly interception to open the second half to drag him down the rest of the game.
All three of his touchdown passes came in difficult down-and-distance situations. His 52-yard connection with Isaiah Bond in the second quarter came on second-and-15. Then after his pick in the third quarter, Milroe threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Burton on third-and-14 to tie the score at 17. He put the Crimson Tide ahead to stay with a 19-yarder to Burton on third-and-9 to close out the third quarter.
“We’re nowhere near the finish line,” Milroe said. “We’re nowhere close to what we want to accomplish. We have a lot of work to do, and so I’m excited for the future.”
In five games this season, Milroe has been a part of 26 plays of 20 yards or longer, and nine were touchdowns. Granted, he still takes too many sacks at times. And his pass attempt on first down in the final minutes Saturday, when Alabama was just trying to go hurry-up so that Texas A&M couldn’t challenge the previous play, was anything but ideal.
But it’s obvious his teammates are rallying around him.
“I don’t really think he’s worrying about it,” Burton said. “Like after that first pick, we were like, ‘We’re good, we’re good, baby. Don’t trip. Let’s just keep going.'”
Saban has said from the outset that this would be a different challenge this season, especially with the Crimson Tide not knowing this summer who their quarterback would be. Their past four quarterbacks going back to the 2016 season are all current starters in the NFL. And, remember, Alabama brought in transfer Tyler Buchner from Notre Dame following spring practice when both Milroe and Ty Simpson had their struggles.
But as Milroe’s reps, both in practice and games, have increased, so has the confidence around him.
“One of the things that Jalen has learned is just to keep playing the next play and focus on that play,” Saban said. “You’re going to make mistakes. Bad things are going to happen sometimes, but you’ve got to be a point guard, man. You’ve got to make lots of assists, not very many turnovers, but you can’t let the turnover that you do make bother you. Distribute the ball to the rest of the guys on the team and let them make plays.”
Saban joked at the outset of his postgame news conference Saturday that there was good news and bad news.
“We’ve got a little bit of both,” Saban said.
But in the same breath, he emphasized that he couldn’t be prouder of his team for the way it competed, especially in the second half after trailing 17-10 at halftime.
“For guys to pull themselves up to overcome adversity, this is a great win for our team. It was a great win for the program,” Saban said. “It was an opportunity for this team to sort of show who they are in terms of what kind of team we have, and I think we can have a really, really good team. Our self-inflicted wounds are something that we are going to have to resolve because they’re all fixable, and we certainly need to do that if we’re going to be able to compete at a high level in the future.”
Among the other bad news was losing senior defensive back Malachi Moore in the first half to a high ankle sprain. Moore is Alabama’s most versatile defensive back, and there’s no timetable at this point on how long he might be out.
Either way, Alabama’s defense is playing at a level right now that has long been a blueprint for success for Saban-coached teams. Since losing 34-24 to Texas, Alabama’s defense has allowed just five touchdowns in its past four games and added a safety in the win over Texas A&M, which upset then-No. 1 Alabama two years ago when the Tide were in town.
“A lot of people really wanted to see us lose, and they wanted to storm the field,” Burton said. “I didn’t want to see that happen.”