Defense inconsistent against pesky Rebels


CW / Joe Will Field

The previous two versions of Alabama-Ole Miss left Alabama’s defense without much to lament or correct. That was not the case on Saturday.

The Rebels scored four touchdowns after scoring one over the previous two years combined. Two of them were after the game was well in hand for Alabama, but afterward several defenders were less than pleased with the 59-31 final result.

“I don’t really like giving up anything plays, tackles,” said junior safety Xavier McKinney, who had a career-high 13 tackles. “… I don’t think I played well. I didn’t play a good game.”

Ole Miss true freshman quarterback John Rhys Plumlee made his first career start against the Crimson Tide, continuing a trend of the defense playing against inexperienced passers.

Plumlee didn’t make much of an impact in the passing game but did on the ground, carrying the ball 25 times for 109 yards and a touchdown. 

Coach Nick Saban said the defense adjusted well to the designed quarterback runs, but the issue arose when Plumlee was forced out of the pocket on pass plays and had a lane to run for the first down.

He evaded and outran Alabama rushers several times, converting seven first downs with his legs.

“He’s a fast runner, so we lost contain on him a lot of times,” senior defensive end Raekwon Davis said.

Ole Miss went three-and-out on its first drive, but was gifted great field position at Alabama’s 30-yard line when sophomore punt returner Jaylen Waddle fumbled the punt. The ensuing Rebels drive consisted of zero passes and seven rushes, including a 13-yard gain, a 4-yard gain on third-and-2 and a 1-yard touchdown run, all by Plumlee.

It wasn’t just Plumlee’s speed that challenged the Crimson Tide; it was the speed of the entire Rebels offense. Ole Miss routinely snapped the ball with more than 25 seconds on the play clock, leading to confusion and two illegal substitution penalties by Alabama.

“We gotta get off the field. Guys are too casual about getting off the field,” Saban said. “That gave them a first down with a penalty… it’s like giving people extra outs in baseball.”

The Rebels also used a variety of formations, from crowding the backfield with two tight ends to a completely empty backfield. Saban told CBS at halftime the defense had settled down after some early confusion, but the struggles didn’t stop in the second half.

Ole Miss ran the ball 58 times a very high number for the modern era of football – for 279 yards, the most Alabama has allowed since its Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State in January 2015. With Alabama’s reputation of being stout up the middle, allowing 4.8 yards per carry is not good enough.

“We’re not really satisfied with the way we’re playing defense right now,” Saban said. “Especially today, especially not being able to stop the run effectively, which is something we’ve always been able to do around here pretty well.”

The defense allowed a season-high 476 total yards on 88 plays. In its first SEC game of the year at South Carolina two weeks ago, it gave up 459 yards on 86 plays. Asking any defense to defend nearly 90 plays is a tall order, Saban said, and the offense needs to sustain more drives to help the defense rest.

After Alabama took a 38-10 lead at halftime, the Crimson Tide and Rebels each scored 21 points in the second half.

“Once you get ahead you gotta be able to play and get off the field, whether it’s third down, fourth down, or whatever it is, and we didn’t do a very good job of that,” Saban said.

With a key road game against a team with a mobile quarterback (Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond) next on the schedule, the bye week comes at a good time for Alabama. 

The focus will be getting healthy and shoring up the issues that have plagued the defense so far during two SEC games.

“We didn’t do our job,” Davis said. “We won the game, but we didn’t do our job at the end of the day.”