Commentary

Defensive demolition sparks Tide

Originally Published: October 10, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

OXFORD, Miss. -- When Alabama dominates, it's never as pretty as USC. Nick Saban's teams don't put up a point a minute the way Florida does. But don't mistake the No. 3 Crimson Tide's 22-3 defeat of No. 20 Ole Miss as anything but a blowout.

If this were "CSI: Oxford," the detectives would have known whodunit before the first commercial. Alabama left all the clues Saban's best teams leave: The defense forced five turnovers, the opposing quarterback refused to set his feet, and every first down the Tide allowed became a cause for celebration.

[+] EnlargeAlabama Defense
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireThe Tide D swarmed the Rebels Saturday.

"Probably the most complete team win we've had all year," Saban said. "We've got a good team. Our guys play hard and play well together."

Saban's 2003 BCS champion team at LSU played this way: Defense and special teams make play after play, and the offense has its moments. Too many of those moments Saturday involved kicker Leigh Tiffin, who went 5-for-5 on field goals. The Tide's lone touchdown came on a 36-yard run by Mark Ingram late in the first half.

The slow creep of the Alabama lead left the illusion that Ole Miss remained in the game. The rest of the game indicated otherwise. Ole Miss finished with 212 yards of total offense and was held to the lowest point total in head coach Houston Nutt's two seasons.

"Very few people score points against Alabama," Nutt said. "… We ran into a real wall today." Take Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead, who began the season as a Heisman candidate and ended Saturday as a tackling dummy. The stats show Alabama never sacked Snead. But the junior transfer from Texas got hit more than the Washington Nationals' bullpen.

"We hit the guy just about every time in the first half, and I think it affected him. It affected them," Saban said. "That's about as fine a defensive performance in the first half as I've been around for a while."

Snead forgot about setting his feet. He forgot about squaring his shoulders. At the half, Ole Miss had gained 19 yards, made one first down and crossed midfield for one play. Snead finished 11-of-34 for 140 yards with four interceptions.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Dave Martin/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Bama have rolled to a 6-0 start.

He has thrown seven in the past two games after throwing 13 all of last season. In Snead's defense, two of the interceptions against Alabama occurred because split ends Shay Hodge and Markeith Summers couldn't hold onto the ball.

That brings up a valid point. Snead wasn't the only Ole Miss player who heard footsteps. Halfback Brandon Bolden completed the unlikely triple play of fumbling a handoff, dropping a pass and fumbling a kickoff return.

"This was the fastest defense if you went from 1-11," Nutt said. "It's from the cornerbacks, to the safeties, to the linebackers, to the D-line. They're the best I've ever seen."

It goes beyond 11, actually. The Alabama special teams dominated, too. Linebacker Cory Reamer blocked a punt in the first half to set up Tiffin's third field goal. He also knocked a punt out of Dexter McCluster's grasp in the third quarter, a turnover that led to Tiffin's fourth field goal.

That's what Alabama does. They hit and they confuse and they hit some more.

"It's not just their speed. It's their size. They're great tacklers," said Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin. "They're the best defense we've faced by far. Easily."

The Alabama offense scored one touchdown, a great call by coordinator Jim McElwain. On fourth-and-1 at the Ole Miss 36, with 1:02 left in the first half, the Tide loaded the left side with what seemed like 15 guys and ran a quick toss to Ingram. He burst through the line and found no one there. A 9-0 lead became 16-0, and the game was all but over.

Quibble if you must that six trips into the red zone yielded Alabama five field goals and a turnover. Five times quarterback Greg McElroy threw a jump ball to wide receiver Julio Jones in the end zone. McElroy went 0-for-5 and should consider himself fortunate that none of them got picked off.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Dave Martin/Getty ImagesMark Ingram rumbled to 172 yards and one TD.

McElroy finished 15-of-34 for 147 yards. Those numbers aren't all that different from Snead's. But McElroy's blood pressure numbers had to be lower. He didn't make the critical errors Snead made all game. Plus, Ingram finished with 172 yards on 28 carries.

"Hard-earned yards," Alabama fifth-year senior left guard Mike Johnson called them.

You could see how much Saban enjoyed this victory. It came in front of 62,657 fans, the largest crowd in Ole Miss history, eclipsing the record set in the LSU game in 2003. Saban won that game, too, 17-14. The victory sent the Tigers into the SEC championship game and on their way to the crystal football.

The comparison stops there. Saban won't entertain any discussion of Alabama beyond the Tide's next game, at home Saturday against South Carolina. When asked to compare this team to the Alabama team that began last year 12-0 and rose to No. 1, Saban answered by discussing what it takes to compete for 14 weeks.

After all, that 12-0 Crimson Tide team finished 12-2.

"This is like climbing a mountain," Saban said. "The higher you go, the more treacherous it gets. The focus has to be better. The execution has to be better, and you have to continue to go through the grind to get there. So far we've done it, but we have to continue to do it."

It's a good metaphor and an accurate one, especially the mental picture of Alabama breathing rarefied air.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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