TUSCALOOSA _ It was one touchdown, but helped caused a perception shift regarding the University of Alabama football team.
Few seemed to noticed that when Tennessee's Gerald Jones scored on a an 11-yard pass from Jonathan Crompton with 1:19 remaining two weeks ago that not only was it the only touchdown the Crimson Tide had given up in the game, but the first in more than 11 quarters.
For more than 192 minutes, no opponent had managed to cross the goal-line, and that was during a brutal stretch of five SEC opponents on consecutive Saturdays. Still, with the Volunteers managing to attempt a game-winning field goal (that was blocked) a lot of the questions the defensive players received this week had the tone of "What's wrong?"
"We played a good team," junior linebacker Rolando McClain said. "They just came out and played their best football. They had two weeks to prepare for us and obviously it showed."
Now contrast that to what McClain said before playing the Volunteers:
"Coach (Nick) Saban says we have a different swagger about us, I don't know," McClain said. "I think that just comes with us being us, being comfortable with each other. We're been playing good all year and we're been on a high because we expect nothing but good things from us because of how hard we work, how hard we practice."
"We want to show the world that we're the best, and to be the best you have to play the best. In the SEC everybody's good so we like it that way."
Despite dropping in the national polls to No. 3 following the bye week, the Tide still leads the Southeastern Conference in rushing defense and is second in both total defense and scoring defense. It's also first in sacks and tackles for a loss, and third in interceptions and turnover margin.
Alabama has been so much more aggressive defensively this year that on one play against Tennessee both cornerbacks blitzed, which was a new wrinkle. Consequently, the Tide only needs three more sacks to match last year's total of 26, which could happen Saturday against LSU. While the Tide averages 2.88 sacks per game (14th nationally), the Tigers give up 2.88 (101st).
"We faced guys with big arms this year," senior linebacker Cory Reamer said. "When they have time to sit back there and make their reads they can make passes all day out there. We knew going into the season that we would have to get into the backfield all year.
"I think it's definitely shown this season that we've blitzed more and gone after guys, and been successful at it."
How successful? Consider how opposing starting quarterbacks have fared against Alabama and everyone else this season:
Virginia Tech junior Tyrod Taylor vs. Alabama: 9-of-20, 91 yards, 45.0 percent, 0 TD, 0 int., 83.22 rating; rest of season: 70-of-121, 1,224 yards, 57.9 percent, 9 TD, 3 int., 162.41 rating.
Florida International senior Paul McCall at Alabama: 16-of-32, 189 yards, 50 percent, 1 TD, 0 int., 109.93 rating; rest of season: 151-of-267, 1,695 yards, 56.6 percent, 11 TD, 7 int., 118.23.
North Texas junior Nathan Tune (starter Riley Dodge was injured); at Alabama: 16-of-23, 126 yards, 69.5 percent, 1 TD, 0 int., 129.93 rating; rest of season: 44-of-65, 465 yards, 67.7 percent, 3 TD, 2 int., 136.86 rating.
Total vs. Alabama: 122-of-257, 1,353 yards, 47.5 percent, 5 TD, 10 int., 90.33 rating; rest of season: 810-of-1,408, 10,703 yards, 57.5 percent, 87 TD, 39 int., 136.2 rating
Starting quarterbacks average roughly 10 percent fewer completions against Alabama, two less yards per completion (13.2 to 11.1), and the touchdown-to-interception ration flip-flips from 1-to-2 against Alabama to 2.20-to-1 vs. everyone else.
The same premise holds true for lead running backs as well:
Virginia Tech sophomore Ryan Williams vs. Alabama: 13 carries, 71 yards, 5.5 average; rest of season: 150 carries, 859 yards, 5.73 average.
Florida International sophomore Darriet Perry at Alabama: 9 carries, 5 yards, 0.6 average; rest of season: 89 carries, 284 yards, 3.19 average.
North Texas sophomore Lance Dunbar at Alabama: 5 carries, 5 yards, 1.0 average; rest of season: 122 carries, 956 yards, 7.84 average.
Arkansas senior Michael Smith at Alabama: 12 carries, 61 yards, 5.1 average; rest of season: 44 carries, 299 yards, 6.8 average.
Kentucky junior Derrick Locke vs. Alabama: 20 carries, 75 yards, 3.8 average; rest of season: 105 carries, 522, 4.97 average;
Ole Miss sophomore Brandon Bolden vs. Alabama: 10 carries, 11 yards, 1.1 average; rest of season: 80 carries, 427 yards, 5.3 average.
South Carolina redshirt freshman Kenny Miles at Alabama: 15 carries, 40 yards, 2.7 average; rest of season: 71 carries, 414 yards, 5.8 average.
Tennessee senior Montario Hardesty at Alabama: 18 carries, 48 yards, 2.7 average; rest of season: 148 carries, 793 yards, 5.4 average
Total vs. Alabama: 102 carries, 316 yards, 3.09 average rest of season: 809 carries, 4,554 yards, 5.62 average
Since being limited to just 5 rushing yards against Alabama, Dunbar has averaged 136.6 yards per game. Had he gained that against the Tide the North Texas running back would be second in the nation in rushing behind only Fresno State's Ryan Mathews, and ahead of Mark Ingram's 125.5 rushing average that leads the Southeastern Conference.
Ingram also tops the nation with 32 rushes of 10 or more yards and has eight receptions of 10 or more yards as well. Of his 172 touches (153 rushes, 19 receptions), nearly a fourth (23.3 percent) have been for at least the equivalent of a first down.
In comparison, Alabama's defense has allowed just two runs of 20-plus yards: Ryan Williams' 32 yard-run for a touchdown for Virginia Tech, and South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia's 21-yard sprint up the middle late the second quarter.
Opponents have managed a 10-yard rushing gain or more just 13 times, four at Kentucky on Oct. 3 when the Tide essentially shifted three players while trying to make up for the loss of sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower, an experiment that lasted just one game. It was the only time this season Alabama has yielded more than 74 rushing yards (133).
Five of the 13 carries were by quarterbacks taking off out of the pocket, and at least two were draw plays when the Tide was looking for a pass. Also, Derrick Locke's 18-yard run for the Wildcats was mostly offset by a 15-yard personal-foul penalty. Overall, Alabama's defense has held opponents under 200 yards of total offense in nine of the last 22 games. During that span, it's yielded just 1,570 rushing yards for an average of 71.36, and the last running back to have a 100-yard performance was Ole Miss' BenJarvus Green-Ellis with 131 on Oct. 13, 2007.
Going back to Tennessee's touchdown, which occurred on botched coverage, the Alabama had allowed just 14 fourth-quarterback points in the first seven games. That's what made it so unusual.
"You play defense the way it's supposed to be, that's supposed to be the result," senior end Lorenzo Washington said in general about not giving up touchdowns. So when it comes to LSU and the stretch run, other than resting up last week Alabama may not need to do much of anything to regain whatever swagger was lost.
"No specific area, I think it's more mental," senior cornerback Javier Arenas said.
If so, don't expect LSU to reach its average of 26.4 offensive points (eighth in the SEC), and 325.1 total yards (12th).
"It's a big game," Reamer said. "Like Coach Saban said earlier in the week, we have to focus on going out on playing our best."