For two weeks, University of Alabama fans were almost led to believe that the Crimson Tide really didn't skip a beat without junior running back Mark Ingram.
Granted, the reserves, especially Trent Richardson, impressed as Alabama crushed its first two opponents, including No. 18 Penn State, by a combined score of 72-6.
Saturday, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner made his season debut after having arthroscopic knee surgery and needed just one play to demonstrate both the difference and how good this offense may be as Alabama nearly matched the pervious point total during Saturday's 62-13 victory at Duke.
"I felt good, better than I did before I had the injury," Ingram said. "There was no hesitation in what I could do out there."
Ingram touched the ball nine times for carries of 48, 3, 50, 1 (for a touchdown), 17 (another touchdown), 9, 20, 6 and minus-3.
The first carry set the tone, when Alabama had two tight ends lined up right and he followed behind, with Michael Williams blocking down and Preston Dial making the sealing block.
The third was through the left side, where the Tide didn't have a wide receiver lined up so Duke had nine defenders in the box focused on Ingram. Nevertheless, thanks to some outstanding blocking the hole was huge. The fifth killed any lingering concern about the knee, after Ingram cut and faked out sophomore safety Walt Canty en route to the end zone.
"We probably could have really forced the issue and tried to play him last week, but I felt another week of practice and getting more reps and getting more comfortable would make him more effective and not put his future in any more risk," Coach Nick Saban said.
Maybe he should sit out more often. Play of the game: There were numerous options, but Duke knew it was in trouble after the first snap when Ingram went around the right end, broke two tackles and went 48 yards before he was finally dragged down.
Player of the game: Nine carries, 151 rushing yards, 16.8 average, two touchdowns. Nice debut for Ingram, but he had a lot of help as the whole offense was pretty outstanding.
Hit of the game: Although sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower had numerous hard hits, like when he threw running back Desmond Scott to the ground late in the second quarter, the most important hit of the game was junior defensive end Marcell Dareus laying out a Duke wide receiver on an end-around for a 4-yard loss. He also then hit nose tackle Kerry Murphy in the head while celebrating. Also of note, on Julio Jones' punt return that was brought back due to a penalty three Tide players made big-time hits including Will Lowery, Eddie Lacy and Wesley Neighbors, and Lacy also had a big hit on Richardson's 91-yard touchdown return.
Statistic of the game: Alabama didn't convert a third down in the first half because it never got to third down. It executed 14 plays on second down for 197 yards with four touchdowns and a field goal. Only once did the Tide fail to score points or at least a first down, senior quarterback Greg McElroy's interception.
Did you notice? Near the end of the game, Duke reserve quarterback Brandon Connette was running for his life when just before he threw the ball away end Darrington Sentimore pushed linebacker C.J. Mosley out of the way while trying to get the sack. Mosley was credited with a hurry.
Also, Alabama's games have had an average score of 44.7-6.3.
Here are 10 other things of note from Saturday:
Explosive plays: Alabama had more big plays (12), and explosive plays (15), than any game since Saban arrived in 2007. Previously, the most was nine big plays against Virginia Tech last season and 14 explosive plays two weeks ago against San Jose State. Saban defines a big gain as a run of 16 yards or more or a pass of 21 yards or more, and an explosive play a run of 13 yards or more or a pass of 17 yards or more. Ingram had the most big plays Saturday with four. The defense yielded five explosive plays (two run, three pass) and just one big play, a 27-yard carry by freshman running back Josh Snead, who wasn't listed on Duke's depth chart.
Richardson's day: The sophomore "quietly" had 184 all-purpose yards, including 61 rushing, nine receiving and 114 on kick returns, and would have easily topped 200 if he hadn't dropped a pass for a big gain. The 45-yard touchdown and kick return for another score were similar in that he found a seam and was gone. Although he shouldn't have returned a kick from deep in the end zone, and only make it to the 18, Richardson made numerous big plays that didn't show in the statistics. For example, on the opening kick return he dropped his shoulder to drill an opponent, and the first kick coverage made the tackle. Richardson also made a great blitz pickup on the pass attempt to Dial in the end zone.
McElroy's day: McElroy's 200.03 passer-efficiency rating now leads the nation. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 258 yards with three touchdowns and at one point completed 10-straight passes. He had two dropped and his first interception after 149 attempts when he pump-faked when he should have thrown, which allowed the defender to make a great play on the ball. McElroy completed his only third-down attempt, 31 yards to Jones, and was 4-for-5 in the red zone with the lone incompletion a drop. His average completion was for 18.4 yards. ABC's cameras didn't catch it but the quarterback took a nasty helmet to the ribs by the blitzing player when he hit Darius Hanks for his 31-yard reception. They also didn't show the bad shotgun snap that was hiked early when McElroy was giving instructions to Hanks, with the quarterback quickly recovering getting back to the line of scrimmage for no gain. Redshirt freshman A.J. McCarron went 3-for-6 with a drop, no attempts on third down and completed his only red-zone throw. Both quarterbacks took a sack when they didn't get rid of the ball.
Jones' day: The wide receiver played extremely well, but something was obviously physically wrong and he may have had the same stomach bug that affected cornerbacks DeQuan Menzie and DeMarcus Milliner. Alabama went after Duke's corners and had a huge mismatch when Jones lined up against redshirt freshman Ross Cockrell. Jones had five catches for 106 yards, 89 of which were after the catch. Overall, the receivers had 153 yards after the catch, 124 on passes McElroy threw.
Injuries: If senior defensive end Luther Davis only has a knee bruise and sprained ankle he's extremely fortunate. During a 5-yard carry midway through the third quarter he was engaged in a block when he fell back over the Duke guard who had tried to make a low block on Murphy. On the play he was shook up, Dareus landed square on a lineman's foot, and said the cleats stuck him in the chest. He also lost one of the digits on his helmet. It wasn't obvious when William Vlachos sustained his right foot injury, which isn't expected to sideline him. The center played the last series of the first half (he was one of the players signaling for a time out) and walked with teammates to the locker room, with David Ross replacing him in the second half. Michael Williams was defenseless when trying to catch a short kickoff and took a high hit from Zach Greene (who was flagged), but did return. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw (ankle) didn't start, but played and didn't have a tackle.
Thrown at: That Duke wasn't able to throw downfield speaks volumes to how well this unit has progressed, and the Tide did a pretty good job of taking the underneath routes away as well. The longest passing gain was 19 yards. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick's first interception used a screen as a decoy, which Menzie and linebacker Jerrell Harris snuffed out, and the cornerback taking advantage of the overthrown ball. Alabama could have had at least two more interceptions and on the pass junior Phelon Jones broke up in the end zone wide receiver Donovan Varner was wide open due to blown coverage. Kirkpatrick had the initial coverage on Duke's touchdown, with Hightower missing the tackle and the cornerback unable to keep him out of the end zone. Milliner didn't start because of the stomach bug, but after entering the game yielded just two short completions thrown underneath. The numerous hard hits, especially over the middle, contributed to Duke receivers arguably dropping 10 passes. Despite all the personnel changes the Tide ranks second nationally in pass-efficiency defense and scoring defense, ninth in total dense and 11th in pass defense.
The pass rush: Alabama was credited with one sack, six tackles for a loss and two hurries, but it should be noted that despite missing out on two more sacks Alabama didn't have many opportunities. That the Tide ranks 115th in the nation in tackles for a loss, and 112th in sacks with two is more reflective of the teams and coaches it's faced than anything else. Before Alabama quarterback Sean Renfree had a 71.1 completion percentage and passer-efficiency rating of 159.4.Hhe completed 46 percent of his passes Saturday and his rating dropped to 135.56, which ranks 51st. Also, while Saban expressed some concern about how the defense appeared to tire some during the second quarter, Duke had the ball for 11:44. The Tide shut out the Blue Devils in the second half. Alabama averaged 10.3 yards per play, Duke just 3.9.
Who got in: The official statisticians credited Alabama with using 59 players, but also misidentified four defensive starters. A telling number, though, was 32 players being credited with a tackle. The second-unit offensive line played most of the second half and tight end Chris Underwood's 28-yard reception was the first of his career. He's the 11th player to have a catch this season. Freshman Jalston Fowler had his first career carries and despite not aggressively not hitting the hole once churned out 48 yards on six carries. Defensively, linebacker Nico Johnson played well in relief and made six tackles while C.J. Mosley made five and continues to earn more playing time. He's tied for second in team tackles with Harris at 13. Some players of note, Neighbors got in at safety, Brandon Moore on the line and, yes, B.J. Scott at cornerback.
Penalties Alabama was flagged six times, the most notable being the 15-yard personal foul when Ingram essentially head-butted linebacker Abraham Kromah after his 1-yard touchdown. However, it was Canty who was pulling his surgically-repaired leg well after the play was over. Kirkpatrick's illegal block nullified Jones' punt return of roughly 45 yards. Redshirt freshman guard Anthony Steen was uncharacteristically called for a late chop block. After being flagged three times last week, guard Chance Warmack made some huge blocks for his running backs Saturday.
Special teams: Cade Foster made both field-goal attempts, of 44 and 21 yards, and combined with Jeremy Shelley for eight extra points. For the third straight week Foster also had a tackle. Alabama made some changes on kick coverage, adding Hardie Buck (who on one return was double-teamed), Johnson, Neighbors and Scott. Robert Lester took Richardson's place after the first few kickoffs. The front line on kick returns was also revamped with Neighbors and Mosley added. Kirkpatrick made a heads-up play to make the recovery on Marquis Maze's fumble and Mosley had the coverage on the failed fake punt. Hanks was deep after Jones was pulled on kick returns.