ARLINGTON, Texas — Just days before Alabama would steamroll past Southern California, coach Nick Saban would compare Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant. Though the Tide and Trojans played in the Cowboys’ stadium Saturday night, Smith-Schuster looked nothing like the All-Pro receiver.
Alabama held Smith-Schuster to 1 catch for 9 yards on 6 targets. His catch came midway through the third quarter. The USC receiver was second in receptions in 2015 with 89 (Washington State’s Gabe Marks had 104), but he could not get going against the Tide’s blanket coverage led by potential 2017 1st-round NFL draft pick Marlon Humphrey.
“He likes to push up and down the field, so the main thing for me was to get my hands on him,” Humphrey told reporters after Alabama’s 52-6 win. “We had a couple of defensive calls that had the safety over the top. Just every time I had the opportunity to hit him I tried to hit him.”
Humphrey ended up with the same amount of catches Smith-Schuster had — one. The Tide cornerback intercepted a deflected Trojans quarterback Max Browne pass and took it 18 yards for a touchdown.
The Dez Bryant comparison Saban made is well warranted for Smith-Schuster though despite him being completely shut down. Both stand at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and are very physical off the line of scrimmage. But it was the Alabama defense that eliminated arguably the Trojans’ top threat on offense.
“They bracketed him the whole night,” Trojans QB Max Browne said. “But, yeah, did a good job shutting down one of the best receivers in the country. Looking back, maybe there’s — like I said, mentioned earlier, we got a 1-on-1 matchup with him and didn’t connect. So, obviously, that stings.”
USC threw 37 passes and yet only one of them was caught by one of the best receivers in college football. It’s the first time since Smith-Schuster’s second career game that he was limited to only 1 reception.
Combining that with a 46-point margin of victory over a team that played for the Pac-12 championship last season, Saban had to be happy with Alabama’s performance, right?
“If you want to know the truth about it, I wasn’t pleased with the way we played,” Saban said. “And, again, you know, if you look at your internal scoreboard rather than the external scoreboard and you say, ‘What do we need to do to improve? What do we need to do to get better?’ Well, you just get satisfied with the result that we got.
“So you don’t take coaching, you don’t try to improve, you don’t think that there are things that we can improve on, then we’ve got some really tough games with some really good teams. If we don’t get better, we’re going to struggle. And we play some of those teams in very tough places to play.”
The “external scoreboard” was good enough though, and it’s going to be hard for Alabama’s stifling defense to have a better performance than what it displayed in Game 1.
Chris Kirschner covers Alabama football recruiting for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play in Bryant-Denny.