Can Auburn dominate Alabama’s offense again in the Iron Bowl? – Update Alaba

Every Iron Bowl is different and there are only so many stories that can make the annual trip from Auburn to Tuscaloosa and back.

Steve Sarkisian on the Alabama sideline with Nick Saban watching at home? John Metchie’s game-winning catch in four overtimes? Crimson Crane celebration? All this belongs in the history books.

But some of what happened last November at Jordan-Hare Stadium is relevant when the teams meet again Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. That starts with a battle in the trenches, where Alabama’s mostly intact offensive line from last fall will meet an Auburn defensive line that also returns three starters from last year.

The first 58-plus minutes of last season’s Iron Bowl were defined by the play of both defenses, but given the expectations of heavily favored Alabama and its offense entering the afternoon, the performance of the Tide’s offensive line was the most surprising. Alabama gained just 68 yards in the first half while allowing five sacks in the first two quarters.

“Well, we can’t block them going forward, obviously,” Saban told CBS during his halftime interview.

Alabama replaced two starters along the line for the second half and gave up two more sacks, though the Tide broke through with a game-tying drive in the final minute of regulation that set the stage for a dramatic finish in four overtimes.

Alabama’s seven sacks were the most in any game since a loss to South Carolina in 2010. The only game in the Saban era in which the program allowed more sacks was the 2008 postseason loss to Utah.

The area the offensive line needs to improve from the 2021 Iron Bowl to the 2022 version is obvious.

“He’s definitely protecting Bryce,” guard Javion Cohen said Tuesday.

The interior of Alabama’s offense generally remains unchanged from the second half of last season’s game, when Cohen and Emil Ekiyor lined Seth McLaughlin’s center after Darrian Dalcourt played the first half. This season, rookie Tyler Booker alternated with Cohen and Ekiyor.

But Alabama will have two new offensive tackles from last year’s Iron Bowl, when Evan Neal was the left tackle and Damieon George started at right tackle before being replaced by Chris Owens. Sophomore JC Latham was the Tide’s starter at right tackle and Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen started at left tackle before getting injured Saturday against Austin Peay. He was replaced by fourth-year junior Amari Kight, who likely would have started the Iron Bowl had Steen been unable to play.

For Auburn, three of its starters on the defensive line return in Derick Hall, Colby Wooden and Marcus Harris, with edge rusher TD Moultry leaving for the NFL last season. Hall, Wooden and Harris combined for five sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in last year’s Iron Bowl.

“Two great players, great pass rushers,” Cohen said Tuesday when asked specifically about Hall and Wooden. “Definitely the leaders on defense. They know the scheme they have there. We know them, they know us. It will be a great competition.”

On the coaching side, Alabama still has offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, but there are new coaches on both sides — Tide offensive line coach Eric Wolford, Auburn defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh.

Alabama will also have the advantage of playing in front of its home crowd this Saturday instead of having to deal with crowd noise. Last season at Jordan-Hare, Alabama was called twice for delay of game and also had an illegal formation penalty.

In addition to his offensive line struggling to protect Young last season, Alabama’s starting running back, Brian Robinson, was held to just 19 yards on eight carries in the first half. The Tide wants it to be different, too, whether Jahmyr Gibbs (ankle) is ready to play or Alabama continues to rely on Jase McClellan.

“Being able to come up with the right game plan and open up lanes in the running game to have a balanced offensive attack [is important]Cohen added.

There was optimism from Alabama in the offseason that Wolford would help change the mentality of a team that had struggled in his only season under coach Doug Marrone. But Alabama’s running game’s uneven start this season caused Saban to call on the offensive line in mid-September to play more physically, which it has done in some games since then — but especially during the last game and a half against Ole Miss. and then Austin Peay.

“I thought last week was one of the better games we played,” Saban said Monday. “We dominated the line of scrimmage, you know, pretty well, finished a lot of blocks. I think we blocked better on the perimeter than we did all year. I’m talking about receivers and so on.

“So I saw a step in the right direction and I saw that in the Ole Miss game, especially in the second half. We started to control the line of scrimmage a little bit, which I think is a really important thing and it’s going to be a big challenge for us this week.”

McClellan, a junior, has rushed for 240 yards since Gibbs was sidelined with an ankle injury in the first half of the Nov. 12 game at Ole Miss. McClellan had 329 yards in his first nine games this season.

But Alabama struggled at times in pass protection against FCS rival Austin Peay, which sacked Young three times — including a play when Steen was injured late in the first half and a free rusher crushed Young on the blind side.

“I think we’ve definitely grown a lot as a unit, as a group,” Young said Monday. “It’s always going to be tough in the Iron Bowl. We have a lot of respect for them as a program and we know it will take everything.”

Mike Rodak is the Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.

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