Defense hitting its stride after statement win

The last time Alabama’s offense was ranked higher than its defense, Nick Saban had never been a head coach at any school, and each of the Crimson Tide’s last seven starting quarterbacks had not been born. Five head coaches have come and gone since that 1989 season.

The sixth, Nick Saban, said this past August – even before a starting quarterback had been named – that Alabama would be a “different kind of team” in 2018 than in years past.  

That has been clear all year, due to the offense’s otherworldly ability to score on any given play. Even though that lessens the load on the defense, it seemed during games against Texas A&M, Louisiana and Arkansas that the vaunted Alabama defense of years past would never materialize.

After a 29-0 Death Valley demolition of then-No. 3 LSU, though, Alabama’s calling card under Saban has made a resounding return.

The Tigers’ 12 rush yards were the fewest Alabama had allowed since Florida had zero in the 2016 SEC Championship. It was also the Crimson Tide’s first time shutting out a ranked team since its last trip to Baton Rouge two years ago.

“The knowledge and experience [the players] have gained throughout the year has really helped their confidence,” Saban said. “[They’re] also playing together, communicating better… and being a consistent unit where everybody’s sort of doing their job.”

Communication issues were a common culprit throughout the defense’s early-season growing pains, with safety Deionte Thompson, linebacker Mack Wilson and others accepting the blame for the unit not playing to the “Alabama standard.”

Whether it was Arkansas’ repeated use of tight-end screens, two defenders latching onto one receiver and leaving another open or Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond’s scrambles, the defense struggled to get on the same page.

As the season has progressed, defenders say they’ve ironed out the issues.

“We came a long way from people trying to talk about us and trying to get inside our heads by saying that we’re young and inexperienced,” junior cornerback Shyheim Carter said. “Communication is key to everything.”

Hostile road environments like LSU can actually make communication among defenders easier, Carter said, because opposing fans are quieter while their team is on offense.

During games at Bryant-Denny Stadium, on the other hand, the defense has to rely more on eye contact and hand signals to ensure the message is conveyed to all 11 players.

The communication at home will be put to the test on Saturday, when the Crimson Tide hosts SEC West foe Mississippi State, ranked No. 16 in Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings.

Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has rushed for more yards than any other quarterback in SEC history. The senior surpassed Tim Tebow’s mark last month against Auburn and eclipsed 3,000 career rushing yards the following week.

Of the few games Alabama has lost under Saban, several have been to a mobile quarterback: Johnny Manziel, Nick Marshall, Cardale Jones, Deshaun Watson and Jarrett Stidham. Those five averaged 65 yards on 17 carries en route to their Tide takedowns.

Fitzgerald ranks fourth in the SEC in rushing yards and rushing attempts, leading all SEC quarterbacks by healthy margins in both categories.

“He can do a lot: He can run, he can pass,” sophomore safety Xavier McKinney said. “It’s like any other quarterback for us. A lot of quarterbacks can do a lot of different things. We have to prepare the right way, and hopefully we can get some stops against him.”

The Alabama defense has already received some notoriety for having caught up to the offense’s lofty standard, and that praise will only intensify if it can stop one of college football’s best dual threats.

The players, though, show little concern about which side of the ball is outplaying the other.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Carter said. “That’s for the coaches to answer. I just play ball.”

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