Tide Gets Defensive In Search Of 10 Wins

Alabama brings one of the nation's top defenses into Saturday's Iron Bowl game against the Auburn Tigers.

Auburn, Ala.—-It's a battle of the best against the best that will get top billing this weekend when the 11th-ranked Auburn Tigers take on the eighth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide Saturday afternoon at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Despite solid units on both sides of the ball for each team, it will be the battle of Auburn's offense versus Alabama's defense that could define this year's Iron Bowl. Ranked first in the league in scoring offense and total offense, Auburn will have a challenge to match those numbers against the SEC's top defense.

Leading the league in scoring defense (9.0), rushing defense (89 yards), passing defense (158.5), pass efficiency defense (93.5) and total defense (247.5), the Crimson Tide has caused problems for every opponent this season with a combination of a strong front line and a speedy back seven.

At defensive end Alabama has a quality pair of starters in senior Mark Anderson (6-5, 253) and sophomore Wallace Gilberry (6-3, 254). The duo has combined for 61 tackles and five and a half sacks this season. The top reserves at end are junior Chris Harris (6-5, 244) and true freshman Bobby Greenwood. Harris has seven tackles and one and a half sacks while Greenwood has 14 stops and is third on the team with three sacks.

In the middle juniors Jeremy Clark (6-3, 305) and Rudy Griffin (6-0, 286) do a good job of tying up blockers to allow Alabama's speedy linebackers to make plays. This season Griffin has just 16 tackles while Clark has 13 stops and two sacks. Alabama's two-deep on the interior defensive line has just 39 total tackles this season.

The strength of Alabama's defense, and in reality the entire team, is at linebacker where Butkus Award finalist DeMeco Ryans roams the field for the Crimson Tide. A four-year starter, the 6-2, 232 Ryans leads the team in tackles with 63 and has three and a half sacks and nine tackles for a loss on the strong side.

In the middle senior Freddie Roach (6-2, 248) is solid with 54 tackles on the year. On the weak side junior Juwan Simpson (6-3, 222) is the starter and has 57 tackles this year, but he was banged up against LSU. That could open the door for junior Terrence Jones (6-1, 222) to see more playing time.

The SEC's most experienced secondary makes Tuscaloosa home as starters Anthony Madison, Roman Harper, Charlie Peprah and Ramzee Robinson have a combined 138 starts. At safety both Harper (6-1, 197, Sr.) and Peprah (5-11, 200, Sr.) are solid players who play the run well. This season Harper is second on the team with 59 tackles while Peprah has 36 stops.

At cornerback both Madison (5-9, 180, Sr.) and Robinson (5-10, 190, Jr.) have played good football in 2005. They have a combined 52 tackles this season. Off the bench sophomore Simeon Castille (6-1, 188) may be Alabama's most talented defensive back.

Charlie Peprah has started 44 games in his Alabama career.

While the defense has been exceptional this season, the same can't be said on offense where Alabama has struggled since losing wide receiver Tyrone Prothro earlier in the season. In five games with Prothro on the field the Crimson Tide averaged 29.6 points and 402.4 yards of total offense. Since then the numbers are down to 16.8 points and 337.4 yards. To get out of the funk on offense is up to Alabama's senior leaders and that means quarterback Brodie Croyle.

A 6-3, 205-pounder, Croyle has remained healthy all season and the result has been a very good year for the senior from Rainbow City. This season he has 2,117 yards and 13 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Completing 60.1 percent of his passes, Croyle has proven to be one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC this season.

In the backfield the show belongs to junior tailback Kenneth Darby (5-11, 205). Third in the SEC in rushing with 1,072 yards on the season and three touchdowns, Darby is averaging 5.6 yards per carry this season. Behind him true freshmen Glen Coffee (6-1, 206) and Jimmy Johns (6-2, 225) are solid backups. Fullbacks Le'Ron McClain (6-1, 256, Jr.) and Tim Castille (5-11, 236, Jr.) both are capable of making the big play in the passing game with 24 combined catches out of the position this season.

Tim Castille can play both fullback and tailback in Alabama's offense.

Without Prothro at wide receiver the Crimson Tide has managed to get the job done, but the long scoring plays abundant early in the season have disappeared the last five games. Leading the way is speedy sophomore D.J. Hall (6-3, 190), who has 44 catches for 619 yards and five touchdowns this season. Fellow sophomore Keith Brown (6-3, 192) is second on the team with 28 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomores Matt Caddell (6-0, 181) and Zeke Knight (6-3, 217) give Alabama solid depth at the position.

Tight ends Nick Walker (6-4, 245, Fr.) and Travis McCall (6-2, 250, Fr.) are known more for their blocking than receiving skills.

Up front, injuries to key players such as center J.B. Closer and attrition have made it tough for the Alabama offensive line in 2005. Playing four new starters, including two redshirt freshmen, the Crimson Tide has survived. With Closner out the veteran of the group in terms of playing experience is 6-8, 290 junior right tackle Kyle Tatum. On the other side at left tackle is 6-6, 286 sophomore Chris Capps. In the middle freshmen Antoine Caldwell (6-3, 296) and B.J. Stabler (6-4, 295) give Alabama two athletic guards to pull with. At center senior Taylor Britt (6-4, 292) gets his second career start after playing against LSU last weekend.

Special teams have been a weak spot for Alabama this season as kicker Jamie Christensen (6-0, 178, So.) has made just 13-20 field goals, but has delivered in the clutch with two game winners. Punter Jeremy Schatz (6-7, 148, Sr.) averages just 38.5 yards per punt this season. With Prothro out the return game has been turned over to tiny senior Brandon Brooks (5-5, 165), who returned a kickoff for a touchdown two years ago in Auburn's 28-23 victory.

Kickoff time is set for 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.

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