He does not coach football to witness 647 yards against.
At that point, the Alabama defense became an urgent issue of wide-ranging concern, threatening to dampen moods in living rooms across Tuscaloosa and beyond, with limited capacity in a pandemic to convene and discuss dampened moods. In the ensuing game, Georgia got 24 points by halftime.
Well, Georgia had 24 at the end also, and seven of the next eight opponents got 17 or fewer, and the Alabama defense climbed to No. 17 in the nation in yards per play alongside Army, and the only possible caveat might be caliber of opponent. (Florida got 46 on Dec. 19.) So for the national championship game of Monday night, the Ohio State offense vs. the Alabama defense would seem to add to the array of strength vs. strength on the field in Miami, even if maybe it’s strength vs. developing strength.
“For starters, I feel like we’ve done a better job of stopping the run,” said DJ Dale, a mighty sophomore tackle from Birmingham, Ala. “The biggest thing was just communicating. It’s been a very long season, and over time we’ve done a good job of just gaining chemistry together. You kind of get a feel for everybody around you. You start to figure out how everybody plays and how you have to communicate with different players in a certain way and give them calls a certain way.”
As of last summer and well before Oxford, there was another case of an Alabama ritual, offseason depletion, its top two sackers from 2019 off to the New England Patriots (Anfernee Jennings) and Los Angeles Rams (Terrell Lewis), just for starters.
“Well,” Saban said this week, “we’re pretty young, especially in the secondary. We have four out of five new starters. We had some young guys playing up front. We have like three freshmen that play a significant role. Early on, we made a lot of mental errors.”
In fact, coaches sit around and count those things, so Pete Golding, the 36-year-old, second-season defensive coordinator, reports that from the film of that night in Oxford, they set aside their nausea medications to count “28 mental errors.”
“Yeah, I think two things to me,” Golding said this week. “Obviously, you can go through that game and get a lot of things, but yards after contact, which is every game. I mean, there was 250 yards after somebody made contact with the guy that had the ball. That’s tough to win at any level when you do that. That comes with missed tackles, poor angles, not getting 11 guys to the ball. We had 28 mental errors in that game as well. Obviously not getting all 11 guys on the same page. Some of that you look back on from a call perspective. Were there too many options based on a formation or something like that, to where when tempo gets involved they’re not on the same page and they’re not contesting plays? But I think the biggest thing is locking in and being able to focus and dominate my box and do my job.”
Now comes an Ohio State tempo that just pasted 49 on a scoreboard opposite Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, and that brings another question. Early on, when the Alabama defense reeled some, it faced offenses ranked 25th (Texas A&M) and 10th (Mississippi) in yards per play. (No. 1, by the way, was, duh, Alabama.) From the Georgia game that must have featured one hell of a halftime, it faced Nos. 91, 104, 95, 69, 78 and 56 before getting to the SEC championship game and Florida (No. 8).
In the Rose Bowl of Texas, it held Notre Dame (No. 34) to 375 yards and 14 points, right after Florida helped itself to 462, which wasn’t that bad set against the Gators’ 46 points.
“Yeah, that Ole Miss game is early,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said, “and I think it looks like they’ve been able to play — one of the best ways to get better is by playing. That’s why we played pretty well the other night. We finally got to Game 6, Game 7, Game 8 [coming up Monday]. . . . Alabama has gotten better because they’ve been able to play, play in a great league against great players every week. I know Florida got hot and, I think, got into a little bit of a shootout.”
So now comes Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and his six touchdown passes of the Sugar Bowl and Alabama leader and linebacker Dylan Moses’s accurate comment: “The dude has a lot of great talent.” And now comes Fields to take snaps in South Florida on Monday night and read the moves of a bunch of South Floridians. That’s Alabama’s secondary, which includes junior Thorpe Award finalist Patrick Surtain II from Plantation, Fla.; sophomore Jordan Battle from Fort Lauderdale; redshirt junior Daniel Wright from Fort Lauderdale; and junior Josh Jobe from Miami.
“It’s just having good eyes,” Battle said this week.
Of the onrushing Surtain, Wilson said, “He can play a guy one-on-one, so that allows the defense to then bracket other receivers or that allows the defense then to cheat with linebackers and safeties to outnumber you and out-gap you in the running game. I mean, he’s a tremendous player. A guy we recruited hard.”
That makes his presence another detail to study in a match of guys recruited hard against guys recruited hard.