Defense shows cracks in win over South Carolina


CW / Hannah Saad

COLUMBIA, S.C. – It wasn’t 2010, but just like its shocking loss to South Carolina nine years ago, the Alabama Crimson Tide won’t leave Columbia feeling great about its defense after a 47-23 win on Saturday.

Gamecocks freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw mostly short passes outside the hash marks in his first start last week against Charleston Southern. 

A breakdown of Ryan Hilinski’s passes against Charleston Southern, with dots representing completions and Xs representing incompletions. Red means either a touchdown or an interception. Graphic by CW / Carly Farmer

The game plan against the Crimson Tide was similar, but with a twist.

“They played the same plays for the most part — just at a faster tempo, trying to make sure that we were on our toes and couldn’t align right,” redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “Trying to basically keep us frantic.” 

Coach Nick Saban said freshman inside linebackers Shane Lee and Christian Harris struggled with South Carolina’s speed and pre-snap motion. The Gamecocks converted 14 first downs in the first half, 11 of which were on Hilinski passes.

Sophomore linebacker Ale Kaho entered the game in relief of Harris in the second half and made four tackles.

“We tried to get 8 [Harris] settled down by taking him out of the game,” Saban said. “… We decided to play Kaho a little bit because he’s a good football player and he needs to get some experience himself.”

Lewis said South Carolina also used hand claps to disguise the timing of the snap, which resulted in three offsides fouls (two accepted) on Alabama. The team had 11 accepted penalties in the game, including two personal fouls, a holding and a substitution infraction that wiped away sophomore corner Patrick Surtain II’s second interception in as many games.

“We had way too many penalties in the game,” Saban said. “We stopped ourselves with penalties and we helped them with penalties on defense by jumping offsides on third-and-10.”

The play he was referring to was the Gamecocks’ first touchdown late in the first quarter. Alabama had forced back-to-back incompletions to bring up third-and-10, but jumped offside to trim it to a more manageable third-and-5. South Carolina pounced, with Hilinski capitalizing on a coverage error by Alabama on a 31-yard touchdown pass.

Saban said his defense’s fatigue later in the game was “disappointing” and attributed it to South Carolina running 86 plays, but he also applauded the defense for allowing a touchdown and a field goal on three red-zone drives.

The Gamecocks had a chance to make the score 24-17 entering halftime after four passes of 10 or more yards, but two incompletions and a recovered fumble left them still down two scores.

They had another chance to open the second half with a score, but an open-field tackle by Lewis brought up third-and-goal from the 10 and an eventual field goal.

“When the field shrunk we were able to get them stopped, and I think the players showed a lot of resiliency in doing that,” Saban said.

Alabama still gave up 459 total yards, its most in a September game since a wild 48-43 game at Ole Miss three years ago. 

“We needed a game like that to kinda get us started and get us to realize this is SEC ball now. Every week’s gonna be a challenge,” Lewis said. “Games like that usually come later in the season for us.”

Given the yardage total and amount of chunk plays allowed, to only allow 23 points — seven of which came at the end of the game against the second-teamers — could be seen as a success. But not to junior safety Xavier McKinney, who led the team with nine total tackles and had his second career interception.

“I felt like it was way too much,” McKinney said. “We missed a lot of tackles, it was too many yards on the ground, too many yards in the air. We got a lot of work to do.”