ARLINGTON, Texas -- Let's not rush to judgment. One game does not make a season, much less a career. But after seven years and nine attempts, Alabama may have recruited a quarterback -- maybe even two -- good enough to step on the field with his highly talented teammates.
Freshman Jalen Hurts, after losing a fumble on his first collegiate play, settled down to throw for two touchdowns and run for two more in less than three quarters. The No. 1 Crimson Tide overcame a slow start to maul No. 20 USC 52-6 in the AdvoCare Classic at AT&T Stadium.
The Trojans haven't lost that badly since Notre Dame beat them 51-0 in 1966, one week after the world chewed on Irish head coach Ara Parseghian for settling for that famous 10-10 tie against Michigan State. Nick Saban had no interest in making any statement, although his offensive coordinator might have. We'll get to that, but the biggest statement Saban made after the game described the rough edges he plans to sand down on his young team.
"If you want to know the truth about it, I wasn't pleased with the way we played," Saban said. "If you look at your internal scoreboard rather than the external scoreboard and you say, 'What do we need to do to get better?' [Or] you just get satisfied with the result that we got."
About that result: Alabama hasn't beaten a top-20 team that badly since a 61-6 defeat of Syracuse in the 1953 Orange Bowl.
It was a commanding show of defense by the defending national champion, which limited the Trojans to 194 yards, two snaps inside the red zone and no touchdowns. USC starting quarterback Max Browne completed his first seven passes for 65 yards, and then seven of his remaining 22 passes for 36 yards.
In addition to Hurts, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, who started and played poorly in the first quarter, returned in the fourth quarter and led the Tide to two touchdowns.
"We think both guys are talented, and we wanted both guys to play in the game," Saban said. "And when the first quarter was over, I was wondering to myself, 'Was this a good plan or a bad plan?'"
Hurts practiced a package of plays all week and came into the game on the third series, as Saban planned. On his first snap, Hurts tried to pull the ball out of tailback Damien Harris' belly. But the QB fumbled it, and USC linebacker Cameron Smith fell on the ball at the Alabama 48.
Hurts may never win two Heisman Trophies, like Ohio State icon Archie Griffin, the most famous player ever to fumble on his first collegiate play. Let it be known that Saban showed a tad more patience than Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes, who sat Griffin for the rest of the afternoon.
Griffin, by the way, rushed for 239 yards in his next game. Hurts didn't have to wait a week to redeem himself.
"He had to gain his composure," wide receiver ArDarius Stewart said. "I had a little, short talk with him. ... He's a freshman. He was just battling with that freshman mindset. I told him, 'Turn the page. Next play. Things like that are going to happen.'"
Three series later, early in the second quarter, on a third-and-13 at the USC 39, Hurts rolled right, set up and threw deep to Stewart for the first touchdown of the Alabama season. There was a lot more where that came from.
On the third play of the second half, with Alabama leading 17-3, Hurts saw a blitz coming and coolly turned right and threw to Stewart, all by his lonesome. Stewart took the pass 71 yards for a touchdown, and the floodgates opened. Hurts finished with 150 total yards. He already had the respect of his teammates.
"When he first got here in the winter, he was on the scout team," cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick said. "I've seen him since he's been here. He's really grown both physically and mentally, and he's matured. I'm really proud of him for the way he played, and I can see a lot of potential for him."
It has been a confounding, if little-discussed, fact: Saban has assembled one top-three recruiting class after another and yet whiffed on just about every single quarterback since he signed A.J. McCarron in 2009.
Even if you give Saban a pass on Blake Sims, who moved from quarterback to running back and then, as a fifth-year senior, returned to quarterback in 2014 and led the Crimson Tide to an SEC championship, it's a list consistent only in its inability to perform.
A roll call, please:
Phillip Sims (transferred to Virginia, transferred to Winston-Salem State)
Phillip Ely (transferred to Toledo)
Alec Morris (transferred to North Texas, started Saturday night)
Parker McLeod (transferred to Western Kentucky, walked on at Georgia)
Cooper Bateman (one start last season)
Don't forget: Jake Coker, the quarterback who led the Crimson Tide to the national championship last season, started at Florida State. He transferred to Alabama in 2014. .
Hurts, the ninth signee, is a 6-foot-2, 209-pound native of Channelview, Texas, and Barnett is a 6-5, 211-pound product of the Los Angeles area. Saban had no interest in discussing what their play meant for practice on Tuesday, much less the Western Kentucky game next week or the rest of the season.
"I made a decision for this game that whatever we did at quarterback was for now," Saban said. "...That's the only decision we made. So I'm not speculating on what we're going to [do] in the future."
One note about Barnett's 45-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter: It came inside of 10 minutes to play, with the Tide leading the Trojans 45-6. Saban allows neither his freshmen nor his assistant coaches to speak to the media. So we don't have direct evidence that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had any reaction to playing his former team. (He was fired as USC head coach three years ago.)
We don't know if Kiffin, who signed 19 current Trojans, including eight starters, was trying to show up the Trojans.
Or if Kiffin read that one of those starters, offensive tackle Zach Banner, when asked by the Los Angeles Times if he had any positive memories of Kiffin, said, "He had good visors," and walked away.
But we do know this: On that early-fourth-quarter play, Kiffin sent wide receiver Gehrig Dieter into the game and had Barnett launch it deep. If USC head coach Clay Helton was fuming, he had nothing on Saban's sideline reaction. Saban went over with his palms out and chastised Kiffin.
Alabama threw one more pass the rest of the game.