Defense struggles, shows inconsistency in season opener


Kelly Ward, Sean Landry

Alabama’s defense wasn’t at its best against West Virginia. Between the miscues of the secondary and the defensive line, the Crimson Tide didn’t look like a team that only gave up 28 net yards rushing.

It did look like a defense that gave up 365 yards receiving.

“We just have to get familiar with the game plan, and we just missed on some of the personal packages, but we got the win, so that is all that matters,” junior defensive back Landon Collins said. “We had a game plan coming in, and it didn’t quite work, but in the second half we settled down.”

The Mountaineers’ senior wide receiver Kevin White had a career-high day against Alabama. Since he transferred to West Virginia in January 2013, his high was 130 yards on seven receptions against Baylor last season.

He passed that mark with a 143-yard performance off nine catches Saturday. He had a long 29-yard reception on the first drive of the game and one touchdown.

Alabama had no answer in junior cornerback Bradley Sylve against White.

“I think, at times, the coordination between what the secondary was doing and what the linebackers were doing and what they were all supposed to do was not exactly what it should have been,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “But these are all things that we’ve executed before. They’re all things that we can learn from. They’re all things that we’re capable of doing.”

Alabama’s other corner, junior Cyrus Jones, picked up some slack, including a pass breakup on second and goal in the fourth quarter. He was named one of the Alabama coaching staff’s defensive players of the week.

“I think I played alright,” Jones said. “I definitely have a lot more work to do just like everybody else on the defense, so I think I’m just going to take it with a grain of salt and keep on striving to get better each week.”

The defense didn’t measure up to what it’s been in recent years, but it was missing experience in senior linebacker Trey DePriest who was sitting out due to an NCAA infraction, leaving a fairly inexperienced group facing a fast-paced offense.

“Not having a quarterback that has any experience, not having a linebacker who ever played before that is out there playing against a fast ball, no‐huddle group that had to call the defenses and get the defense lined up, I just thought that there were a lot of critical positions, all right, that we were going to get tested at based on who we were playing and the quality of team that they had,” Saban said.

The defense was tested. It gave up 393 yards in total offense but only allowed West Virginia to convert five of 14 third downs.

“It’s very frustrating. It’s all mental,” Collins said. “We knew we needed to make the stops and get off the field, but we just didn’t do it enough.”

Alabama’s offense succeeds under new leadership

Alabama’s first possession in Saturday night’s 33-23 win over West Virginia could have been any possession from the 2013 season. The quarterback threw 24 yards to receiver Amari Cooper, followed that with a 7-yard pass to the junior, handed the ball to Derrick Henry and, two plays later, to T.J. Yeldon. The ball went to the same players it usually had, for the usual result: significant yardage.

This Alabama offense, however, is different from its predecessor.

Blake Sims started at quarterback for the first time in his Alabama career after backing up AJ McCarron for three seasons. The fifth-year senior wasn’t perfect on the night, but he was able to extend plays with his speed in ways that Alabama hasn’t been able to do in recent years, sidestepping on-rushing defenders with relative ease. That mobility helped Sims go 24-for-33 for 250 yards and an interception in his first start – numbers that could have been higher if not for a set of uncontested drops by Alabama receivers.

“Blake did a good job in the game,” Saban said Monday. “He had a couple of open guys that he missed and a couple of good throws he made that were dropped. Those are the kinds of things that we’re talking about cleaning up on both sides of the fence. The only negative was – especially in the second quarter, which I mentioned after the game – poise and calling plays in the huddle, taking too long in the huddle. We actually had to call timeout a couple of times. Those are the kind of game management things that we would like to improve upon.”

Sims was the new face under center for a new offensive playbook for the Crimson Tide. Under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Alabama’s offense showed a number of new looks Saturday night, and reached a level of productivity rarely seen from Alabama offenses in recent years. Alabama recorded 538 yards of offense on 82 plays in the season opener, nearly 80 more yards and 20 more plays than its season average from 2013.

Yeldon recorded 126 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, while Henry accrued 113 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, marking the first time Alabama has had a pair of running backs run for over 100 yards each since October 19, 2013, when the Crimson Tide hosted Arkansas. However, the junior running back said Alabama can polish their offensive performance.

“No one panicked,” Yeldon said of his team’s performance. “We just went out there and played. It was definitely a team effort and we can definitely improve a lot.”

Saban said the team planned on relying on its stable of running backs all along.

“I like the way both guys played,” Saban said. “As long as we can keep them healthy and they both stay healthy, that’s probably how we’ll play.”