September 29, 2013 1:24:58 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One big topic dominated the headlines leading up to the top ranked Alabama Crimson Tide's SEC home opener against the #21 ranked Ole Miss Rebels.
Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban found his area of expertise, the defensive secondary, to be the topic of much scrutiny. Alabama's defense gave up school records in yards allowed against Texas A&M earlier this season. The next week against Colorado State they looked uninspired and emotionless.
That wasn't the case Saturday evening against Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and his potent Rebel offense.
"We're communicating very well, but we can always get better" safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. "The young guys are competing. If they make a mistake they keep playing full speed."
With senior cornerback Deion Belue back healthy from a toe injury, Saban made a bold move and started true freshman Eddie Jackson at the other cornerback position. Against a tall, strong and athletic group of Ole Miss receivers, Belue, Jackson and the rest of the Alabama secondary brought their A-game.
"I think the atmosphere helped but I think the players did a phenomenal job," Saban said. "The fact that we're playing a freshman corner who did a great job today, the experience that he's getting is going to be a great help."
As a group they played fast, physical and fundamentally sound football. Their presence was felt in more than just the passing game.
On the first possession of the game for Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace and his offense, the Rebels were threatening in Alabama territory but faced a fourth down and short. The Rebels went to true freshman wide receiver Laquon Treadwell on the ground but were stopped short when Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix came flying to the ball in run support, sending Treadwell flipping.
"When you're not running the ball effectively against great teams, it makes for a long night," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. "It seemed like every time we thought we had a beat on them, we missed something we thought should have been good."
Later in the quarter with Alabama up 3-0 the Rebels were again threatening to score, but this time it was Jackson's turn to get in on the action for the Crimson Tide. Ole Miss went back to Treadwell on the ground but this time the receiver pulled up to attempt a pass.
The target was Ole Miss receiver Donte Moncrief on the right sideline, but Jackson stayed at home instead of biting on the run. He snagged Treadwell's throw and recorded the first interception of his young Alabama career.
"We looked at it as a challenge," said Alabama defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan. "With all the things that Ole Miss was saying, we took it personal."
Neither offense was great in the first half, but Jackson and the rest of his cohorts were able to keep Ole Miss off the scoreboard.
Alabama struggled again offensively but was given a boost by the strong leg of kicker Cade Foster. The senior kicker from South Lake Carrol, Texas made all three of his first half field goal attempts including a career long 53-yarder.
Early in the third quarter the Crimson Tide offense finally got their high powered offense going. Sophomore running back T.J. Yeldon used some nifty moves to break away from a few Rebel defenders on his way to a 68-yard touchdown run, the longest of his career.
Yeldon's run gave Alabama a 16-0 lead that the newly spirited defense would not relinquish.
Wallace and his fast paced offense would continue their efforts to break through against Saban's defense but were turned away with every attempt.
"The more you play against this kind of pace of play, the players get more accustomed to it," head coach Nick Saban said. "The communication was really good. The execution was really good and this was a good team win for us."
Late in the third quarter the Rebels looked rejuvenated by the hard running of Wallace and Jeff Scott. Their hurry up offense seemed to be running in prime form. A targeting penalty that carries an automatic ejection was called on Alabama's Jackson to put the Rebels all the way down to the Crimson Tide 15-yard line. The ejection on Jackson was later reversed by the officials but the penalty yardage stood.
The Rebels wouldn't come much closer to the end zone, however, as the Alabama defense came to life with the rest of Bryant-Denny Stadium. A fourth down dart from Wallace toward the end zone was batted down and the threat was gone, saving the Tide's shutout for the time being.
"We came together as a team tonight," Pagan said. "It was playing team football. Alabama football."
With all of the momentum seemingly on their side, the Ole Miss defense stood strong again against A.J. McCarron the physical Alabama offense. A third down pass from McCarron on the first play of the fourth quarter was tipped and intercepted by Rebel safety Cody Prewitt. The interception put Ole Miss in prime real estate at the Alabama 31-yard line with plenty of time on the clock to mount their comeback.
The Alabama secondary, lit with a new sense of confidence and passion, sprinted onto the field with completely different ideas. The short Rebel drive included three incomplete passes from Wallace and ended with a heave to the end zone, broken up by Belue.
The Ole Miss offense that came into the contest between ranked SEC west opponents averaged 38 points and 490 yards of total offense per game. The ground was where they did the majority of their damage in their previous three games, racking up 250 yards per contest.
The opposite was the case Saturday night in Tuscaloosa for this unit. The Crimson Tide held Ole Miss to just 46 yards rushing on 25 carries. Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott came into the contest averaging over nine yards per carry, a lofty mark against any competition. Against Alabama however, the speedster ended the night with just 28 yards on eight carries.
"All in all I was very pleased and proud of the way our guys played," Saban said. "You can be critical about a lot of things, but if you're critical here it's because the expectations are so high."
Wallace was equally ineffective passing the ball, finding open receivers infrequently and far less often than he would have liked.
He finished with a minimal 159 yards on 31 pass attempts. Wallace didn't throw any interceptions, but he did turn the ball over once when he was sacked and stripped of the football by Alabama linebacker Denzel Devall.
The night was owned by the Alabama defense, and specifically a secondary unit that was highly questioned and criticized coming into this game. They were facing a group of well praised Ole Miss receivers and an offense that likes to play as fast as they're allowed. Belue, Jackson, Clinton-Dix and the rest of the bunch met the challenge head on, limiting the Rebels to just 205 yards of total offense and preserving the first shutout of the season.
"We really didn't pay attention to it, but we heard it," linebacker C.J. Mosley said of the words a few Ole Miss players had in the days leading up to this game. "For us to leave a zero on the board, it did a lot of talking for us on the field."
Any questions about Saban's bunch were answered Saturday night with an emphatic showing.
1. Former Bulldog Sirmones shot and killed in Tennessee COLLEGE SPORTS
2. Starkville Academy soccer searches for leadership HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
3. EMCC football faces challenging schedule in 2016 COLLEGE SPORTS
4. MSU's Frazier making the most of call to the big leagues COLLEGE SPORTS