Alabama defense slows high-scoring Southern Miss offense


CW / Joe Will Field

It will not be the first time nor the last time Alabama’s defense will have to slow down a dynamic offense.

In its first trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium since 2005, Southern Mississippi held the second-highest points per game average in Conference USA with 33.3 points per game. Despite having a bevy of explosive receivers and a dynamic special teams unit, the Golden Eagles were limited to just one score in Alabama’s 49-7 victory.

“I think that we played better today,” coach Nick Saban said. “I think that we were simpler in terms of adjustments that we wanted to make in the game which I think helped the young players especially. But, I think the players did a pretty good job of adjusting to a lot of stuff and some stuff that we did not practice.”

Southern Miss gave Alabama some unconventional looks throughout the game. On a few occasions, the Golden Eagles would send their running back from his normal position behind the quarterback, to the sideline and have him line up as a receiver. Alabama scrambled to adjust as a linebacker would jog over to cover the running back and was left in one-on-one man coverage with no safety help.

On the second play in their first drive, the Golden Eagles tried to take advantage of the mismatch that is created when a linebacker has to cover a running back. Southern Miss’ De’Michael Harris got behind Alabama’s freshman linebacker Shane Lee on a go route but the throw was long and fell incomplete.

Alabama quickly adjusted by switching to dime rather than nickel to counteract the four receivers. The adjustment paid off on the third Southern Miss drive as senior defensive back Trevon Diggs made an over-the-shoulder interception inside the red zone on a route that he read perfectly.

“I was watching film during the week. I just recognized some of the plays that they were doing and this was one of those plays that I really studied,” Diggs said. “I saw the back motioning out so he was either going to run an over route or a chop route depending on where he released and he released outside so I knew he was going to run a chop route. It was all film study and I was just playing the ball.”

Diggs, who was a former receiver prior to becoming a defensive back in his sophomore season, credited his time as a wideout for helping on the interception.

“I was playing inside. I was in the slot so [Southern Miss quarterback Jack Abraham] wanted to throw the ball high and outside,” Diggs said. “[Southern Miss receiver Quez Watkins] kind of grabbed my helmet. I really couldn’t see it, but I just played it with my hands and with my eyes.”

Along with shutting down the Golden Eagles’ speedy receivers, Alabama keyed in on getting off the field in third down situations. Last week against South Carolina, the defense was on the field for 86 plays as the Gamecocks converted on eight of 18 third downs. This week, the defense allowed two third-down conversions for the game, allowing the group to get off the field and remain fresh well into the third quarter.

“Before the game that was one of the things we were going to work on and try to execute,” Diggs said. “We made it our priority so I felt like we did a good job on third down.”

Despite the improvement on third down, junior safety Xavier McKinney still felt that the defense can go to another level. Against the Gamecocks, McKinney said that the defense’s play was “not it” as South Carolina tallied 459 yards of total offense, the most since Clemson’s 482 total yards in the national championship. To McKinney, this week’s 226 total yards feels like a step in the right direction, but he’s still not satisfied.

“We did good but in my opinion, and I know our defense feels the same way, they shouldn’t even have points up on the board,” McKinney said. “We had a couple of sloppy drives at the start of the game. We want to be able to stop every team that we can and we didn’t really do that completely yet.”

Along with feeling disappointed about the game, the defense felt the losses of redshirt junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis and freshman nose guard D.J. Dale. Lewis did not dress for the game as he recovers from a hyperextended knee.

Saban said after the game that Lewis had a minor procedure to help him recover faster and said he will be day-to-day. Dale, on the other hand, was helped off the field at the end of the second quarter and did not return for the rest of the game. Saban said that the doctors think Dale will be okay and is also listed as day-to-day.

With key starters missing, Alabama relied heavily on players like Justin Eboigbe, Christopher Allen, Phidarian Mathis and others to help fill in.

“I think all across the board we are ready to play, no matter who that is,” McKinney said. “A lot of people are eager, people that don’t play so when they do have a chance to play they get out there and make the most of the opportunity. We kind of just harp that with everybody and hold everybody to the same standard.”