Alabama reminds Nick Saban always has an answer, even when Bryce Young’s injury changed the question

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The most decorated cheerleader in Razorback Stadium tried for one more wave of the wand. Given all the magic Alabama’s Bryce Young has already manufactured in his career, he was hoping for some more with a Hail Mary second-half visit to the medical tent on the Bama sideline.

Be advised: The reigning Heisman Trophy winner had not played since being tackled by his ankles and landing awkwardly on his right shoulder in the second quarter.

At the time, Arkansas coach Sam Pittman — that old dog — leaned into his team’s surging momentum by calling what would be a successful onside kick. The No. 20 Razorbacks were in the process of scoring 23 straight points on the No. 2 Crimson Tide, 17-point road favorites who had just been leading 28-0 late in the second quarter.

Young was questionable to return, nursing a sprained AC joint.

When the quarterback visited the tent for a second time Saturday afternoon, he was either hoping for 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 observed.

Ah, but there are different ways to win a game. Saban said so himself after Alabama’s 49-26 victory.

We should know by now that The Sabanator always has answers. One of them Saturday was in the transfer portal. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs broke out with a career rushing performance: 206 yards with a pair of touchdowns, each from more than 70 yards out.

The much-celebrated transfer from Georgia Tech finished third last season in all-purpose yards. He had one purpose Saturday: replacing Young’s arm with his burst.

“Fourth quarter came, hold up them [four fingers] like we do every day,” Gibbs said. “I kept things calm, played football.”

The other answer came through recruiting. Redshirt freshman QB Jalen Milroe replaced Young late in the second quarter. He led five touchdown drives, rushing for 91 yards, which included taking the third snap of the fourth quarter 77 yards to the Arkansas 3-yard line.

“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 got big I’m going to try to score.”

Not quite. Jace McClellan scored three plays later, and Arkansas’ run of 23 straight points scored was broken. So was the Hogs’ spirit, essentially.

“It stopped the bleeding for sure,” Saban said.

On his first touch of the fourth quarter, Gibbs rushed 72 yards for his first touchdown. On his third touch, he raced 76 yards for a score. That’s 242 total yards — all of them on the ground – as part of a three-touchdown barrage in the fourth quarter that not only covered the 17-point spread but lightened the mood.  

Asked if the game plan changed when Young went out, Saban snapped, “I was going to call Jimbo [Fisher] afterwards and tell him.”

Fisher can see for himself next week at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Texas A&M enters wounded — 3-2 after being blown out at Mississippi State — and likely unranked. Alabama hosts with a better sense of who they will be this season after five weeks.

The Tide’s top-ranked defense slipped a bit as Arkansas QB K.J. Jefferson caught fire, Pittman called for that onside kick and Bama long snapper Kneeland Hibbett turned it over with a wild-pitch snap far and wide from the punter, setting the Hogs up at the Tide 3 in the third quarter.

“You’ve got to be able to win more than one way,” Saban said. “We had to score points in a different way than when Bryce was in there.”

In the second half, Young could do nothing but rah-rah from the sideline. Stud Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders, an Alabama transfer, had snagged Young’s ankle as he ran right looking to throw the ball away.

Should have thrown it away sooner, Saban said. The lost yardage resulted in a missed 52-yard field goal.

That’s when had to win a different way. After Young went out, Milroe threw the ball just nine times. There were just four throws in the second half 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 was supposed to be the feature back this season. It just took a while. 

“The first I had known Gibbs was the Army All-American Bowl,” Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said of the annual high school all-star game in San Antonio. “He was the best running out there, in my opinion. When you watch on the jumbotron, his cutting and bursting through holes is excellent. Going against him in practice every day, he’s silent; he doesn’t talk much. He does his job.

“This is why you come to Bama. For games like this.”

Young probably did Jimbo a solid in a weird way. Instead of the focus being on the Saban-Fisher feud from the summer, there will be breathless speculation all week regarding Young’s condition.

After the game, Saban candidly 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 puts him day-to-day for the Texas A&M game.

Even with Young healthy, there were questions about Alabama coming into this road game. In four of its previous five such contests, it had played games to within three points. There was the squeaker at Texas, the loss last year at Texas A&M and the overtime miracle against Auburn.

And now this. The Tide trotted off the field at peace in more than one way having knocked off the Razorbacks for the 16th consecutive time. They scored 42+ points for the seventh consecutive meeting.

Things looked dicey when Young went to the tent in the second quarter. When their roles changed in an instant, Young gave words of encouragement to his backup. Then the backup reached higher.

“First thought I had was talk to God, ask for protection, healing. I had a one-on-one conversation with God,” Milroe said.

Did He have an answer?

“He did,” Milroe said.

That’s all Milroe would share. As Saban had mentioned, after a win like this, some things are best kept to yourself.

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