Defense Key To Alabama Start

FAYETTEVILLE — Similar excitement surrounded Alabama's football team as the Crimson Tide prepared for its fourth football game in 2007. Just like this season, Alabama had started out 3-0.

Only then, Arkansas had just put up 38 points on Nick Saban's first defense as Alabama's coach. So expectations were at least somewhat tamed for the Crimson Tide's fourth game in 2007, an eventual 26-23 loss to Georgia.

Not the case this season. Entering its 11:30 a.m. contest at Arkansas on Saturday, No. 9 Alabama is ranked in the top 10 for the first time since January 2006. And its fan base holds hopes there is staying power after only 16 games of the Saban era in Tuscaloosa.

Credit the Crimson Tide's surprisingly stingy defense, which wasn't highly touted before the season, for that optimistic outlook. Alabama ranks first nationally in rushing defense (22.7 yards per game), ninth in scoring defense (7.7 points per game) and 13th in total defense (221.3 yards per game).

Yet Alabama defenders say they haven't been fueled by those who doubted them.

"We're not really playing to impress anybody," Alabama junior cornerback Javier Arenas said. "We're playing to impress ourselves, get better week in and week out. We don't really focus on things like that, but after the dust has settled ... then we might think about things like that. Then we might be like, ‘Hey, people thought this' or ‘people expected this.'

"But we don't dwell on that too much because that's a distraction."

The Crimson Tide defense hasn't seemed too distracted by anything other than dominating its opponents.

Alabama opened the season by limiting No. 23 Clemson's talented backfield duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller to an unthinkable 20 yards on eight carries. The Crimson Tide defense covered for a sputtering offense in week two against Tulane and eventually competed for 145 minutes and 39 seconds before allowing a touchdown. Western Kentucky finally reached the end zone last Saturday on a 30-yard touchdown pass.

Saban said he thought his young defense gained valuable experience needed to stop Arkansas because of the style of offenses it contained.

"We have played against two teams that spread it out quite a bit, which (Arkansas) will be," Saban said. "(Arkansas does) a good job of executing. It is always a challenge. They do some things that will be a challenge for us and I don't want to minimize the fact that I think they can run the ball because they can. ... This will be the biggest challenge for our defensive team on the year to this point."

Saban realizes his defense lacks experience. He knows tougher days await. After all, Saban plays, and starts, just two seniors on defense — defensive end Bobby Greenwood and free safety Rashad Johnson.

But the talent upgrade from previous Alabama teams is obvious. Even Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino commented on the improvement Alabama had made under defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and head defensive coach and associate head coach Kevin Steele. Petrino started with 6-foot-5 nose guard Terrence Cody, but he didn't stop there.

"(Terrence Cody is) a big nose guard inside. (He's) very physical and takes up a lot of room," Petrino said. "I've been very impressed with his athletic ability and ability to shed blocks and make plays. He's a big load in there. Both of their safeties we have on video from a year ago. They're playing a lot more aggressive and coming down to make a lot of tackles. They basically play four corners and all of them come up and press and try to play real physical.

"It's a good challenge for us."


Coach: Nick Saban

Record: 3-0

Rankings: No. 9 by the Associated Press; No. 13 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll

Series History: Alabama leads Arkansas 10-8

Last Meeting: The Crimson Tide beat the Razorbacks 41-38 on Sept. 15, 2007. John Parker Wilson's 4-yard touchdown pass to Matt Caddell gave Alabama the victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

Offensive Leaders

Passing: John Parker Wilson (50-for-80, 468 yards, 4 TDs, 1 Int)

Rushing: Glen Coffee (37 carries, 242 yards), Mark Ingram (37 carries, 210 yards, 3 TDs)

Receiving: Nick Walker (11 receptions, 96 yards, 2 TDs), Julio Jones (10 receptions, 107 yards, 2 TDs)

Notables: Think things look decent for the future at Alabama? Keep in mind that the Crimson Tide has only nine scholarship seniors on its roster, tied for the least amount in the country. ... Wilson has posted two of his best games against Arkansas. In two starts, Wilson has completed 40 of his 65 passes for 570 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. ... Alabama has played 15 true freshmen this season, tied with Arkansas for the second-most nationally.

Hawgs Daily Top Stories