Alabama head coach Nick Saban wasn’t happy with his team’s offensive performance in the Tide’s semifinal win over Washington. Sure, Bama won by 17 and outgained their opponents 326 to 194, but that’s on the strength of Bo Scarborough’s 9.5 yards per carry and a defense straight out of World War I: You can gain ground on Reuben Foster and Co., but it’ll take forever and nobody’s going to live to tell about it. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts only threw for 57 yards and completed just seven passes on 14 attempts, so Saban cashiered controversial offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who was set to leave for his new job as Florida Atlantic head coach after the season, and replaced him with Steve Sarkisian, who is essentially Lane Kiffin in Groucho Marx glasses.
Here’s some advice, Sark: Give O.J. Howard the damn ball.
Alabama’s senior tight end is 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, and looks even bigger. He’s the next-size-up matryoshka doll Scarborough came out of. His arms are 18 feet long and his hands are so big you could stick an antenna on them and pick up HBO in the 1980s. He doesn’t pancake defenders, he smothers and chunks them.
According to Todd McShay, Howard’s the top tight-end prospect in college and a top-25-overall talent; yet he’s only the third-most targeted receiver on the team, despite a 78.8 percent catch rate. His size and hands make him a Gronk-like red zone target, yet he’s got only six touchdown catches in his entire career.
But when it counted against Washington, what little passing offense Alabama was able to muster came courtesy of Howard. While Alabama ran the ball 50 times, Hurts targeted his tight end on half of his throws, and Howard caught four passes for 44 yards, still more than all of Alabama’s other receivers put together. It’s not enough.
Consider last year’s national title game, in which Howard had the game of his life: 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns, both from more than 50 yards out. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Howard is clutch, as most industrial vehicles come with a manual transmission.
Against Clemson, Howard somehow kept getting open. That’s in direct contravention of Newton’s law of gravitational attraction, according to which a thing as large as Howard ought to pull everything in the universe toward itself. Howard should be covered in defensive backs, yard markers, cheerleaders, and stray cartons of French fries all the way down the field. But there he was, open in the flat, where he’d catch the ball, turn upfield, and go from zero to “How is someone that big moving that quickly?” in a flash. Or he’d get open down the sideline on a wheel route, because the first line of “Sweet Home Alabama” is “Big wheels keep on turning.”
It’s difficult to bring Howard down, but not impossible — defenders can sometimes hit him low and knock him to the ground. Come to think of it, the phrase “Go for the legs — it might be our only chance of stopping them!” does sound familiar, because it’s how Luke Skywalker told Rogue Squadron to take down the Imperial walkers. Not that it mattered, because the Imperial walkers still overran Echo Base.
That image should appeal to Alabama, college football’s implacable bad guy. Superpowers shouldn’t aim to win by finesse, by elegant play design, by cunning and guile. Howard is the opposite of finesse, as unsubtle a force that exists in the college passing game.
You know what you have to do, Sark. Give O.J. Howard the damn ball.