Alabama football: Has Tide defense been passed in passing game?
Of all the eye-popping stats that came out of Saturday’s Alabama-South Carolina game — and there are lots of them — here is one that pops eyes for a somewhat different reason:
South Carolina passing yards: 324.
Because Alabama overwhelmed the Gamecocks in the air, as Tua Tagovailoa threw for a career-high 444 yards and 5 TDs in the 47-23 victory, the performance by South Carolina freshman QB Ryan Hilinski gets short shrift at first blush.
But for a freshman to carve up No. 2 Alabama’s secondary, a freshman who was playing in just his second collegiate game after replacing the injured Jake Bentley, should be of concern among those in crimson and white.
Hilinski completed 36 of 57 attempts in the game, throwing two touchdowns and an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter with the game very much in hand.
South Carolina had a lot of chances to make the game closer than it appeared. Parker White’s fake field goal run to the end zone was called back by a holding penalty. Alabama sniffed out a fake punt to stop the Gamecocks well short of a first down. And Hilinksi’s final attempt at points was well off target after South Carolina drove to Alabama’s 1 on the final play of the half.
“They did a great job of executing in the red zone when we needed to, but it was disappointing that we didn’t execute better,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said of his defense.
“When you get in the red zone against that team, you gotta score touchdowns,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “In retrospect, looking back, you kick the field goal and you go down 11, you get the ball start the second half, but you know, at the end of the day, I felt like we needed touchdowns.”
South Carolina ran 86 plays against Alabama, something Saban said is not sustainable for his defense.
“We don’t have enough players to get through the season if we have to play 86 plays of defense every week,” Saban said.
Some of the uneven play, Saban said, stemmed from confusion from younger players trying to make on-the-fly adjustments.
“We had to stay pretty simple with what we were doing. When the field shrunk we were able to get stops,” Saban said. “There was a lot of confusion with the young players with the formations and the motions they were doing. We tried to get (freshman linebacker Christian Harris) out of the game and get settled down and put in (Ale) Kaho. We decided to leave Kaho in because he’s a good player and he needs to get some experience himself.”
Hilinski and South Carolina had success in part by utilizing an up-tempo offense, and though the freshman QB was sacked three times, he also had plenty of opportunities in clean pockets.
“They were trying to hurry up on the line so we couldn’t get our calls together,” Alabama linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “They played at a faster tempo and kept us on our toes so that we couldn’t get aligned right, and tried to keep us frantic, keep us on edge. They tried to keep us off balance and getting us offsides.
“Everything they did we gave them. They made it to where I couldn’t get a sense of the game and the snap count. That’s just part of the game.”
Though South Carolina might have given some quality film for SEC offensive coordinators to work off of, future opponents still have to worry about an opportunistic Tide defense. The Crimson Tide has forced at least one turnover in 57 of its past 62 contests dating back to the start of the 2015 season. During the current run, the Crimson Tide has forced 101 turnovers (67 interceptions, 34 fumbles) and returned 22 of those miscues for TDs.
“Our goal was to come in here and play a complete game. I thought we did that on offense. I think we ran out of gas on defense,” Saban said. “But 86 plays on defense is a lot, especially in conditions like this. We still need to do work to play to the standard we are capable of playing to.”
And if Jimbo Fisher is reading, well … Saban is now 17-0 all-time against his former staffers during his tenure at Alabama.
Saban has three wins vs. Will Muschamp (Florida, 2011 and 2014; South Carolina 2019), Derek Dooley (Tennessee, 2010-12) and Jim McElwain (Colorado State, 2013; Florida 2015-16); two wins over Mark Dantonio (Michigan State, 2010 and ’15), Jimbo Fisher (Florida State 2017, Texas A&M 2018) and Kirby Smart (Georgia, 2018 CFP National Championship Game and SEC Championship) plus one win over Billy Napier (Louisiana, 2018) and Jeremy Pruitt (Tennessee, 2018).
Muschamp was an assistant under Saban at LSU from 2001-2004, serving as the Tigers’ linebackers coach in 2001 before rising to become LSU defensive coordinator in 2002. Muschamp also left LSU with Saban after the 2004 season to join the Miami Dolphins staff as the assistant head coach.
“I felt like we need to steal some possessions in the game, stay on the field offensively more, because of their offense,” Muschamp said. “It’s a totally different animal what you’re trying to face. We get in the red zone, we need to score touchdowns. So yeah, it was a different mindset than maybe we’ve had other weeks, but it’s not the same every week because what do you need to do to win the game?”