FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The most decorated cheerleader at Razorback Stadium tried another wand wave. Given all the magic Alabama’s Bryce Young has already pulled off in his career, he was hoping for more with a second-half Hail Mary visit to the medical tent on Bama’s touchline.
Attention: The reigning Heisman Trophy winner hadn’t played since he was tackled in the ankles in the second quarter and landed awkwardly on the right shoulder.
At the time, Arkansas coach Sam Pittman — that old dog — leaned into his team’s rising momentum by calling in a successful onside kick. The No. 20 Razorbacks were on the way to 23 straight points against the No. 2 Crimson Tide, 17-point street favorites who had just led 28-0 at the end of the second quarter.
It was questionable if Young would return as he was nursing a sprained AC joint.
When the quarterback visited the tent for the second time Saturday afternoon, he was hoping for either a different diagnosis or some privacy so he could change into a Superman costume. Neither happened.
“There’s only one Bryce Young in this country,” Saban later remarked.
Ah, but there are different ways to win a game. Saban said that even after Alabama’s 49-26 win.
We should know by now that The Sabanator always has answers. One of them was in the transfer portal on Saturday. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs broke out with a career rushing performance: 206 yards with two touchdowns, each from more than 70 yards.
Georgia Tech’s much-celebrated transfer finished third in all-purpose yards last season. He had one goal on Saturday: to replace Young’s arm with his burst.
“The fourth quarter is here, hold it up [four fingers] like we do every day,” Gibbs said. “I kept things quiet, played football.”
The other answer came through recruitment. Redshirt freshman QB Jalen Milroe replaced Young late in the second quarter. He led five touchdown drives and rushed for 91 yards, including the third snap of the fourth quarter with 77 yards to the Arkansas 3.
“The biggest thing was looking at the chains,” Milroe said. “…Once I passed the line of scrimmage, I was just trying to get a first down. Then my eyes widened, I’ll try to score.”
Not quite. Jace McClellan scored three games later, and Arkansas’ 23-point streak was broken. That was essentially the spirit of the hogs, too.
“It stopped the bleeding for sure,” Saban said.
On his first touch in the fourth quarter, Gibbs rushed 72 yards for his first touchdown. On his third touch, he ran 76 yards for a score. That’s a total of 242 yards — all on the ground — as part of a three-touchdown barrage in the fourth quarter that not only covered the 17-point span but also lightened the mood.
When asked if the game schedule changed when Young went out, Saban snapped, “I was going to call Jimbo [Fisher] follow him and tell him.”
Fisher can see for himself next week at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Texas A&M comes in wounded – 3-2 after being blown out at Mississippi State – and likely unranked. Alabama hosts with a better sense of who they’ll be five weeks into this season.
The Tide’s top defense slipped a bit as Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson caught fire, Pittman called for that onside kick and Bama long snapper Kneeland Hibbett flipped him far and wide off the punter with a wild pitch snap and set up the Hogs the Tide 3 in the third quarter.
“You have to be able to win in more ways than one,” said Saban. “We had to score differently than when Bryce was in.”
In the second half, Young could only do rah-rah from the touchline. Stud Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders, an Alabama transfer, had Young snapped by the ankle as he ran to the right and tried to throw the ball away.
Should have thrown it away sooner, Saban said. The lost yardage resulted in a missed 52-yard field goal.
You had to win differently. After Young went out, Milroe threw the ball just nine times. In the second half there were only four throws for 3 yards through the air.
Milroe, a former four-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite, is a 6-foot-2, 212-pound specimen who can run the 40-yard dash in 4.64 seconds. Gibbs should be the main man again this season. It just took a while.
“The first time I knew Gibbs was at the Army All-American Bowl,” said Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. of the San Antonio high school’s annual All-Star game. “In my opinion, he was the best that ran out there. If you look at the jumbotron, his cutting and bursting of holes is excellent. When he faces him in training every day, he’s silent; he doesn’t talk much. He’s doing his job.
“That’s why you come to Bama. For games like that.”
Young probably pranked Jimbo in a weird way. Instead of focusing on summer’s Saban-Fisher feud, there will be breathless speculation about Young’s condition all week.
After the game, Saban openly revealed that Young’s sprained AC joint is not an uncommon injury for the quarterback; he’s experienced it before, and it usually resolved itself for him. That gets him day in, day out for the Texas A&M game.
Even if Young was healthy, there were questions about whether Alabama would make it into this road game. In four of the previous five such competitions it had played games within three points. There was the squeaker at Texas, the loss at Texas A&M last year and the overtime miracle against Auburn.
And now this. The Tide trotted off the field peacefully in more ways than one after defeating the Razorbacks for the 16th straight season. They scored more than 42 points for the seventh year in a row.
Things were looking dicey when Young headed into the tent in the second quarter. With their roles instantly changing, Young offered his backup words of encouragement. Then the fuse reached higher.
“The first thought I had was to talk to God, to ask for protection, healing. I had a personal conversation with God,” Milroe said.
Did he have an answer?
“He did,” Milroe said.
That’s all Milroe would share. As Saban pointed out, after a win like this, some things are best kept to yourself.