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Alabama secondary shuts down Hogs

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Arkansas had just stuffed Alabama's offense on three straight plays from the Razorbacks' 1-yard line, forcing the Crimson Tide to kick a 20-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead with about 5½ minutes left to play in the first half of Saturday's game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

On the sideline, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban could sense his team's momentum slipping away.

"We had the ball inside the 1 and we ended up having to settle for a field goal," Saban said. "I think the momentum of the game changed a little bit right there."

But three plays later, Alabama cornerback DeQuan Menzie changed the complexion of the Crimson Tide's SEC opener for good. With the Razorbacks facing third-and-10 at their 20, quarterback Tyler Wilson dropped back and tried to throw to receiver Greg Childs on the left side. Menzie batted the ball into the air with his hand, grabbed it and ran 25 yards for a touchdown, giving the Tide a 17-7 lead at the half.

The No. 3 Crimson Tide added two quick touchdowns in the third quarter -- the first one on receiver Marquis Maze's spectacular 83-yard punt return and the second on tailback Trent Richardson's 61-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass -- to rout the No. 14 Razorbacks 38-14 in front of a sold-out crowd of 101,821.

"To intercept and score on defense was probably huge," Saban said. "That was a big turning point in the game from a momentum standpoint. You know, we need to make more plays like that, get more turnovers."

As long as Alabama's secondary keeps playing the way it's playing, the Crimson Tide probably won't have many problems turning opponents over this season. Alabama's defensive backs were a problem area during its disappointing 10-3 season in 2010. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was a first-year starter, and Menzie was coming back from a ruptured Achilles' tendon he suffered before transferring to Alabama from Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College.

Crimson Tide safety Mark Barron, a preseason All-America choice in 2010, played much of last season with a torn pectoral muscle and wasn't nearly as effective.

A year later, Kirkpatrick, Menzie, Barron and strong safety Robert Lester collectively make up what is arguably the country's best secondary.

"It's really tough to throw on us, especially with Barron and Lester back there," Menzie said.

Wilson completed 22 of 35 passes for 185 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, but he rarely hurt Alabama with downfield passes. With the Crimson Tide holding the Razorbacks to 17 rushing yards on 19 attempts, Alabama's defense went after Wilson and held his highly regarded receiver corps in check.

Razorbacks senior Joe Adams had six catches for only 37 yards, and Jarius Wright had four receptions for 31 yards. Senior Greg Childs, who came back after tearing the patella tendon his knee last season, had only two catches for 17 yards.

We wanted to go out and show people what we were capable of with all cylinders turning.

-- Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower

Last season, Wright really hurt the Crimson Tide, catching six passes for 131 yards. After falling behind 20-7 in Fayetteville, Ark., last year, Alabama rallied with three straight touchdowns in the final 15:44 of a 24-20 victory.

"It was a little personal," Kirkpatrick said. "We don't have any babies on defense now. We've seen it all."

Wilson, who is in his first season as a starter after replacing Ryan Mallett, hadn't seen a pass rush like Alabama's. The Crimson Tide never sacked him, but they bruised and battered him throughout the game. Saban said defensive coordinator Kirby Smart tried to confuse the Hogs by running "kills," in which the Tide would disguise one coverage or blitz and then run something entirely different.

"If you look at Arkansas, everybody talks about what a great pass offense they are, and they are," Saban said. "But when they are able to run the ball effectively against you, you really have issues because now you are off-balance all the time. We got a lot of split coverages today. They didn't run the ball and when they did, I thought we did a pretty good job up front."

Saban also challenged his defensive backs to make open-field tackles and not allow Arkansas' receivers to run after the catch.

"They have really good receivers and they throw to them on those crossing patterns," Saban said. "Our guys did a good job of watching those today and did a good job of tackling them in space. When you play teams that spread you out, that is exactly what you need to do."

The Crimson Tide have another month to prepare for their Nov. 5 showdown against No. 2 LSU in Tuscaloosa. Alabama plays its first SEC road game at No. 15 Florida next week, then plays Vanderbilt at home, Ole Miss on the road and Tennessee at home.

Alabama's defense let the rest of the SEC know on Saturday that it will be difficult to beat.

"We set out to establish that we were going against the best offense in the SEC and a lot of people were labeling us as the best defense in the SEC," linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "We wanted to go out and show people what we were capable of with all cylinders turning."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.