Commentary: Alabama’s battered defense upset with performance, but help is on the way
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — “We’re going to have a come-to-Jesus meeting on Monday,” said senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, which tells you how Alabama felt about giving up 23 points to Colorado State on Saturday.
It didn’t matter that the Rams scored twice in the fourth quarter after Nick Saban had started inserting backups in hopes of getting them some valuable playing time. What irked the No. 1 Crimson Tide was that after taking a 41-10 lead, Colorado State was still plugging away and trying to win the game.
Alabama didn’t seem to be.
“We didn’t execute very well defensively. Not stopping the run, not getting off field on the third down, didn’t play great in the red zone,” Saban said. “We have a lot of work to do. We made a lot of mental errors with the new guys playing, in some cases, different positions. The continuity and togetherness is not what it needs to be on that side of the ball.
“They made some plays that I wasn’t pleased with.”
When the Crimson Tide goes over the game film each week, Saban has a segment named after the famous 1966 movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He’s going to have plenty to talk about with all three categories.
- For the good, the defense gave up only 11 total yards in the first quarter, made two turnovers that led to points, including Hootie Jones’ first career interception, and broke up 9 passes, 4 by senior cornerback Levi Wallace in his second start.
- The bad will include giving up 391 total yards and CSU scoring on all four trips to the red zone.
- As for the ugly, Colorado State was 10 of 17 on third downs and had a time of possession advantage of 33:53 to 26:07. The Rams had four possessions of double-digit plays and scored on all of them — 12, 11, 11 and 15, accounting for 297 yards.
“There were some third-down situations, third-and-12 and third-and-13 that you’ve got to get off the field in those situations,” Saban said. “[Colorado State] made plays that we normally would make that we didn’t make, and that allowed them to keep the ball. We busted a coverage and gave them a 50-yard play where the corner fired and nobody covered his guy.
“We didn’t execute, that’s what happened. We didn’t execute.”
— SEC Country Alabama (@SECCountryBama) September 17, 2017
The real question is why Alabama didn’t execute like it had hoped. While it’s difficult for a team to keep its edge when up 41-10 and the stands are emptying, one position group in particular struggled. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it was the linebackers.
Colorado State was well aware of Alabama’s injury issues and tried to take full advantage. It ran a lot of I-formation plays with a veteran quarterback leading an experienced group of supporting players, and they targeted the replacements in the passing game.
With junior Christian Miller (bicep) and sophomore Terrell Lewis (elbow) expected to miss the rest of the season, and fellow outside linebacker Anferee Jennings (ankle) sidelined along with senior interior linebacker Rashaan Evans (groin), Alabama thought it could be OK if it didn’t suffer any more setbacks.
But freshman Dylan Moses (undisclosed) wasn’t available this week and junior interior linebacker Keith Holcombe spent quite a bit of time in the medical tent with what looked like an ankle injury. He returned and led all players with 9 tackles, but the Crimson Tide were dangerously thin at the position.
“We have five linebackers who aren’t playing,” Saban said. “I don’t care who you are, what team you are, that creates some issues and some problems.”
There’s no better example than what Penn State went through last season.
The Nittany Lions lost middle linebacker Jason Cabinda in the opener, and then their best outside linebacker Brandon Bell a week later. Nyeem Wartman-White subsequently joined them, suffering a season-ending knee injury for the second-straight year.
During that stretch, Penn State lost to Pitt 42-39, survived Temple 34-27 and without three starting linebackers was crushed at No. 4 Michigan, 49-10. It was down to using former walk-ons and inexperienced players.
Penn State was decimated by injuries that game. Actually had a tuba player from the band playing Linebacker
— Steven A Smith (@stevepa27) December 4, 2016
Cabinda and Bell returned for the upset win against Ohio State in mid-October, and along with Manny Bowen, the trio combined to make 43 tackles and 2 sacks. Penn State didn’t lose again until the Rose Bowl, winning the Big Ten title along the way.
Alabama’s only starting linebacker playing against Colorado State was Hamilton, who is coming off an ACL injury suffered in the SEC Championship Game. Holcombe and former walk-on Jamey Mosley made their second consecutive starts and freshman Christopher Allen was in the mix at the other outside spot.
“All these guys are scholarship guys,” said Hamilton, banging the no-excuse drum that will be heard all of next week as Alabama prepares for its SEC opener at Vanderbilt, which knocked off No. 18 Kansas State on Saturday.
The good news for Alabama is that Evans appears to be close to returning, and can play any of the four linebacker spots. He was in uniform, but didn’t warm up against the Rams. Jennings probably isn’t too far behind.
Saban likes to call his defensive leaders the alpha dogs, and it’s time they start barking.
“We were on the field entirely too long,” Hamilton said. “All it takes is one person not to do his job and a play is made, just like that. We have to execute. We have to play better.”