FAYETTEVILLE — To this point in Alabama’s season, concerns about the first-team defense have largely been limited to allowing an occasional big play. Most opponents, even if they’ve converted a few chunk plays, haven’t been able to sustain long drives.
That changed Saturday. In a 65-31 win over Arkansas, Alabama allowed its most points since the national championship loss to Clemson two seasons ago and its most yards since last year’s Iron Bowl (405).
“We didn’t play very well together as a unit,” coach Nick Saban said. “We had lots of opportunities to get off the field on third down and just didn’t do it, which allowed them to extend drives. I don’t think you really beat the other team when you give up 31 points.”
The Razorbacks had two scoring drives of 11 plays each, the longest drives allowed by Alabama’s starting defense this season. Both mostly operated via the passing game; the first drive featured eight passes and the second had nine.
Several two-yard checkdowns by the Razorbacks turned into 8-yard gains because of poor tackling, and it seemed like most of their completions were to wide-open receivers.
“We had the guys covered, but [our defenders] were kind of coming off their coverage,” Saban said. “They were running a lot of option routes, a couple times we were supposed to play stacks a little differently… They had a good game plan, they did a good job of executing it.”
The Crimson Tide’s struggles persisted throughout nearly the entire game. On Arkansas’ 11-play second drive, it had passes of 21, 11, 16 and 16 yards. It only reached third down once, and that was an 8-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Cheyenne O’Grady.
O’Grady, who had three touchdowns in his career before Saturday and had never caught more than four passes in a game, had his way with the Crimson Tide. He hauled in seven passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns.
On the first score, junior cornerback Trevon Diggs appeared to slow down in the end zone to peek at the quarterback, allowing O’Grady to get open in the back corner.
On the second, junior safety Deionte Thompson covered O’Grady well, but Arkansas quarterback Cole Kelley fired an on-target throw to the tight end before Thompson could break it up.
“This was our first big challenge this season,” Thompson said. “They would not go away.”
Arkansas outgained Alabama 112-75 in the fourth quarter. Nearly half of the Razorbacks’ rushing yards came in the final frame, as well.
“It got kind of frustrating toward the end, because we knew we kept messing up on the same stuff,” sophomore defensive lineman Quinnen Williams said. “We’ve got a great opportunity to go in the film room and learn what we messed up on. … We’re Alabama but we’re not perfect.”
It was far from a flawless performance, but there were some bright spots. Junior cornerback Shyheim Carter intercepted a pass from Ty Storey early in the fourth quarter and returned in 44 yards, his second pick-six of the year.
Sophomore linebacker Dylan Moses led the team with 10 total tackles, two of which were for loss, and also had a quarterback hit.
Moses’ main highlight, though, was a forced fumble at the 1-yard line that stunted the Razorbacks’ suddenly-hot offense from closing within a touchdown when the score was 21-7.
With one of college football’s most prolific quarterbacks, Missouri’s Drew Lock, coming to Bryant-Denny Stadium for next week’s homecoming game, the defense can ill afford to make the same mistakes next Saturday night.
“That’s on us as coaches. We’ve got to do a better job of teaching these guys,” Saban said. “We just need a lot of guys to have a little more focus, a little more discipline, a little more confidence and believing that if they do their job the way that we want them to do, they’re going to have the best chance to be successful.”