It was only seven days prior that the Alabama football defense got thoroughly embarrassed, right? You remember, that trip to Knoxville that people can’t stop talking about? A check of the calendar and, yup, only a week and a few practices had separated the Crimson Tide defense from a 52-point black eye at Tennessee. Not nearly enough time, surely, to look like an entirely different and more confident unit.
But there it was at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night, instantly and with a vengeance back in pre-Tennessee form.
Defensive coordinator Pete Golding’s unit turned in a lights-out, shutdown performance in a 30-6 win over Mississippi State. And attributing this 180-degree turn is a multi-faceted task.
Start with the most basic variable, and the one that cautions Alabama fans from taking too much from the improvement: Mississippi State is not what Tennessee is offensively. Mike Leach’s team entered play averaging nearly 14 fewer points per game than the Volunteers. Alabama wasn’t tested the same way, or with the same firepower, from last week to this.
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Crimson Tide opponents should take some caution, too, however. Because there was a lot more to it than that.
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As expected, there was a bit of a personnel shakeup, although it wasn’t immediately clear how much of it was injury-related and how much was performance-based. A few defensive regulars − D.J. Dale, Jaheim Oatis and Deontae Lawson − weren’t on the dress roster. Cornerback Terrion Arnold was, and played on special teams, but gave way to Eli Ricks at one cornerback position. Ricks set an early tone with a pass breakup on the Bulldogs’ opening offensive play, and finished with four in an excellent starting debut.
There were differences in scheme as well.
Golding countered Mississippi State’s four-receiver sets with a dime package of six defensive backs that was on the field pretty close to full-time, which meant extensive action for dimeback Malachi Moore. Mississippi State, in turn, attacked that approach with an early commitment to the running game not often seen from Leach teams. The Bulldogs totaled 20 rushes in the first half, but couldn’t make Alabama pay much of a price for playing light in the box with a suffocating secondary.
The pass rush that vanished at Neyland Stadium returned in force with four sacks.
The enthusiasm that punctuated Alabama’s stout defensive play over the first half of the season was back as well. The body language from star linebacker Will Anderson Jr. and others spoke clearly to a self-assured defense that had renewed vigor, completely different signals than those that were sent just a week before. Mississippi State finished with just 293 total yards on an entirely forgettable night for one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks in Will Rogers.
It was a thorough transformation, so stark in contrast to its tattered effort in Knoxville that it seemed to come from much more than just a well-conceived plan. As far as anyone knows, the home waters of the Black Warrior River don’t have any healing powers for a broken defense.
But it sure did seem like it.
Reach Chase Goodbread at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread