Maturity boosts Tide defensive dominance

AUBURN, Ala. – Look no further than Trent Richardson to tell you just how good Alabama's defense is.

When he could have added even more flavor and love to his full-blown Heisman campaign following a record performance against Auburn, he gloated about his defense rather than himself.

“We gave up more points than our defense did tonight,” said Richardson, who rumbled to a career-best 203 rushing yards in Alabama’s 42-14 victory over Auburn. “That should tell you about our defense.”

It says that this game could have been a shutout for the Crimson Tide, who improved to 11-1 on the season. It tells you how overwhelmed Auburn was at home against the nation’s No. 1 statistical defense (191 total yards allowed per game).

As much as Alabama’s offense and special teams can be unpredictable, the one thing that has remained consistent all season is the tenacity and ferocity of Alabama’s defense.

“We want to go out and just dominant,” Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw said.

And that’s exactly what Alabama did against the Tigers. Auburn managed just 140 total yards of offense, averaged 2.5 yards per play, got nine first downs, converted 3 of 15 third downs and crossed into Alabama territory on five of its 10 drives.

Auburn's longest drive on Alabama’s side of the field netted just 39 yards and resulted in a turnover on downs.

“I didn’t feel like we were going to dominate, but I felt like if we did what we had to do and execute on all cylinders of the game, it was going to go pretty good for us,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said.

It went more than good, as Auburn had no answer for Alabama’s blitzes, receivers rarely found separation and the Tigers’ offensive line looked like it was held together by string.

By all accounts, this was a shutout for the Crimson Tide defenders.

“They only scored 14 points, right? And they didn’t score on the defense, so it’s not fair to them,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They’re not out there.”

When the defense was out there, bad things happened for Auburn.

A year after the defense was too young and looked vulnerable at times, Alabama now thoroughly relies on it. Gone are veteran quarterback Greg McElroy and offensive threats Mark Ingram and Julio Jones, meaning experience lacks at times.

Alabama’s defenders knew that coming into the season and knew that if this team was going compete for a national title, they had to be the ones that never wavered in their play.

For as up-and-down as the offense could have gotten, the defense had to be solid as a rock.

“We knew we’d have to step up and be a shoulder to fall on,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “There were a couple times in the season where we had to be the backbone for that game, but we all know that was fine. That is something that this team has learned.”

This defense has also learned more about the game. Last year, ability was supposed to carry this squad when experience wasn’t there. Raw talent was supposed to outweigh youth.

That didn’t happen, Hightower said. Last year’s defense couldn’t always handle the exotic blitzes and the multiple shifts or calls.

Last year’s defense helped blow a 24-point lead to Auburn at home.

This year’s defense nearly blew Auburn out of its own stadium by halftime, and did so with veteran safety Mark Barron on the sideline with an injury most of the time. This year’s defense wants complicated calls and begs defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to dial up tricky blitzes.

Through its maturity, it feasts on opponents, barely allowing eight points a game and a yard per play.

Now, the Tide’s defense will wait and rest, with its mind on New Orleans and No. 1 LSU (12-0, 8-0 SEC) -- the team that cost Alabama its perfect record.

Hightower said LSU’s 9-6 overtime victory stings more because of how well the defense played. Alabama smothered LSU for most of the night, allowing no touchdowns, 239 offensive yards and forcing two turnovers.

“It hurts,” he said. “We played probably one of the best defensive games we’ve played all year against those guys. We were just one or two big plays away.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to get those guys back in the national championship.”

The countdown to redemption has begun.