Troubles to Triumph: Saban leads defense in enormous improvement over No. 3 Georgia


Photo courtesy of Alabama Athletics.

Alexander Plant | @aplant63, Sports Editor

After a shutout in the second half, Alabama bested Georgia 41-24 in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday. The Crimson Tide, led by a COVID-19-negative Nick Saban, improved its defensive play and kept up Saban’s streak of no losses to former assistant coaches.

Defense: A tale of two halves

The first half saw an Alabama defense unable to bounce back from its two unimpressive performances against Southeastern Conference foes Ole Miss and Texas A&M. The Crimson Tide allowed back-to-back 450 total yards in those two games, and the team continued that streak throughout the first half opposite the Bulldogs. Georgia had 268 total yards to close out the first half, walking into the locker room ahead 24-20.

Saban knew that this game would be an uphill battle.

“This was an obvious great win against a really good football team,” Saban said. “We knew we probably wouldn’t be winning in the early rounds. I have a lot of respect for their coaches, [their players]. I was really excited for our players… and how they handled the week… I think they responded with a lot of maturity.” 

The main struggle for Alabama in the first half seemed to be communication issues while in man-to-man coverage. Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken confused the Alabama linebackers and defensive backs with lots of motion and play-action plays. Monken’s strategy was successful in causing Alabama to commit to the run too soon or create mismatches in man-to-man coverage. 

For example, sophomore linebacker Christian Harris was in man-to-man coverage against a much faster Georgia running back, James Cook, after a motion switched his assignment and was beat over the top. The ensuing pass from Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett was completed for an 82-yard touchdown. Though Saban was happy that the team persevered, he said that they shouldn’t get into holes they have to get out of.

“There’s a lot of things like the big play we gave up [in the first half that we have to work on],” Saban said. “We don’t want to keep having these mental errors that keep haunting us.”

The key for Alabama’s defense tonight was sophomore strong safety Jordan Battle’s return. Battle missed the first half due to a targeting call in the second half of Alabama’s matchup against Ole Miss. Battle turned out to be the huge factor for Alabama’s defensive back unit. The Crimson Tide held the Bulldogs scoreless the entire second half and deflected a pass that ended in an interception for freshman STAR Malachi Moore. Moore’s return on the interception put the Alabama offense in Georgia territory and led to a rushing touchdown from senior running back Najee Harris. 

Sophomore safety DeMarcco Hellams, who got more playing time than usual without Battle in the game, said that the message at halftime with Battle returning was to finish strong. 

“Jordan gave us a great boost,” Hellams said. “He stayed prepared throughout the week even though he knew he wasn’t going to play in the first half.”

The next drive for Georgia also ended in an interception. Bennett scrambled out right to avoid a sack from Christian Harris and threw right into the hands of redshirt junior free safety Daniel Wright. These back-to-back turnovers proved crucial to Alabama’s victory, as it kept the many Georgia offensive playmakers on the sideline and forced the gassed Georgia defense to stay on the field. 

The three defensive interceptions for the Crimson Tide were all converted into Alabama touchdowns. For senior linebacker Dylan Moses, there were plenty of lessons to take away from the game, but he said he was proud of the way the defense played in the second half. 

“There’s still areas we can improve in,” Moses said. “We don’t want to be complacent. There’s a lot more work we can do.”

Former Alabama standouts on defense, like Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson, were quick to criticize the lack of improvement from the team in the first half of the game. Both questioned the ability of the defensive backs unit to cover in man-to-man. The criticism was put to sleep in the second half and the praise began to come through

Once the pressure to score was put on Georgia, Bennett and the Georgia offensive line could not rise to the challenge that the Alabama pass-rush posed. As the clock began to wind down in the fourth quarter, the game’s looming end sucked the air out of the Bulldogs. Stetson finished the game completing 18 of his 40 passes and throwing three interceptions. 

Offense: Learning on the job 

After offsetting interceptions, the Alabama offense picked up where it left off from the past three weeks. Before the game, Alabama led the nation in scoring with 51 points per game, and they continued that dominance in their second drive as junior quarterback Mac Jones completed a 40-yard deep ball to sophomore wide receiver John Metchie III. However, after the touchdown in the first quarter, the offense suffered through a scoreless drought and were forced to punt three consecutive possessions.

Once Jones cracked the code to the Georgia defense, the flood gates opened for the Alabama offense. Alabama scored on six of its next seven drives and took all the momentum the game had to offer. Jones finished the night going 24 of 32 with 417 yards and four touchdowns. 

But without the running game supported by Najee Harris and the experienced Alabama offensive line, Jones wouldn’t have been able to have such a successful day. 

“The goal is just to win,” Jones said. “They have good players in secondary; they had good linebackers… but so did we. It’s kind of cliché, but our goal was to score more points then they did.”

The much-acclaimed Georgia defense was flat-out out-classed. As the game progressed through the second half, Jones expanded his range in the passing game as he hit multiple passes of 20 yards or more to junior Jaylen Waddle and senior DeVonta Smith, both wide receivers. 

Special Teams: An impressive but uneven skill set

There was a huge standing ovation for sophomore kicker Will Reichard at the end of the first half. The crowd anticipated that Reichard would miss the 52-yard kick, as many past Alabama kickers failed 50-plus-yard attempts. Reichard is currently 100% on kicks this year, both extra points and field goals. He was able to knock down two field goals and five extra points Saturday. Smith explained after the game that Reichard’s key to success was his confidence. 

“The confidence that [Reichard] has,” Smith said. “He just knows that he can [make his kicks] when he’s given the opportunity.”

But everything on special teams didn’t work for the Crimson Tide. Disappointing kickoffs resulted in better than average starting field positions for Georgia. Reichard was unable to kick it out of the endzone even once on kickoffs, allowing Georgia to have six returns for a combined 161 yards. 

Next Week:

Alabama will take on the Tennessee Volunteers next Saturday, Oct. 24 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Saban said that the players have 24 hours to celebrate this huge win but then it’s back to work come Monday.