Alabama defense stifles Blue Devils in season-opening win

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Alabama defense stifles Blue Devils in season-opening win

CW / Joe Will Field

CW / Joe Will Field

CW / Joe Will Field

CW / Joe Will Field

James Ogletree, Sports Editor

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ATLANTA – Alabama’s defense didn’t look like it was starting two true freshmen at inside linebacker. It didn’t look like it had six new starters. And it didn’t look like it was missing its most athletic pass rusher.

As it bottled up the Duke Blue Devils en route to a 42-3 win, it looked like a normal Alabama defense. 

To coach Nick Saban, though, it was a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t mean the team is back to its typical level of discipline and execution.

“I don’t think one game re-establishes anything,” Saban said. “I think you gotta do it over time and I think you gotta do it as a team and everybody’s gotta buy into it.”

The Duke offense didn’t present much of a challenge in the passing game, as senior quarterback Quentin Harris was 12-of-22 for 97 yards and two interceptions.

After Alabama had begun sluggishly on offense with a three-and-out and a lost fumble, Duke drove to the Crimson Tide’s 7-yard line. On fourth-and-1, Alabama freshman linebacker Shane Lee surged through a gap and tackled Duke running back Deon Jackson for no gain to force a turnover on downs, a key stop early in the game. 

“It was very big,” said senior corner Trevon Diggs, who had an interception and a fumble recovery. “Most stops like that set the tone for the defense. I felt like it was a good spark for our defense and the momentum shifted.”

Lee got his first career start at Mike linebacker in place of Dylan Moses, who reportedly will miss the season with a knee injury. Next to Lee was fellow freshman Christian Harris.

Saban said in his Wednesday conference call that both had responded well after being thrown into starting roles, and it showed on Saturday afternoon as both players recorded six total tackles. He added after the game that they did a good job of adapting to some unexpected schemes Duke ran.

“I thought those young linebackers played exceptionally well,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “They’re big, strong, really good players. … Their front played really well.”

Harris had a short-yardage stop of his own late in the second quarter, wrestling the ball carrier down on third-and-2 to force a second straight three-and-out. Lee flashed his sideline-to-sideline speed on the next Duke drive, pushing Deon Jackson out of bounds before the running back could get farther upfield. The Blue Devils gained just 56 yards on three second-quarter drives, and finished the game 3-for-12 on third down. 

Redshirt junior Terrell Lewis made his long-awaited return to the field after a serious knee injury last summer and a one-quarter suspension. 

His third play on Saturday, a third-and-8 sack of Quentin Harris, reminded him of his last play in an Alabama uniform: a sack of Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm in overtime of the national championship nearly 20 months ago on the same field.

“It was basically kind of like that Georgia play, honestly,” Lewis said. “[Senior D-lineman Raekwon Davis] stabbed the A-gap and I came and looped around and it was right there.”

Duke went into halftime with three first downs and finished the game with 11. The Blue Devils’ only points came in the second quarter after a 39-yard pass down the sideline and a pass interference foul on Alabama corner Josh Jobe in the end zone. 

Jobe made his first career start at outside corner, recording one tackle and one pass breakup, and freshman nose tackle D.J. Dale started and made three tackles. Defensive players making their first appearances for Alabama included Dale, Harris, Lee, freshman defensive end Byron Young, redshirt freshman corner Jalyn Armour-Davis, and freshman defensive backs Marcus Banks, Scooby Carter and Jordan Battle, who had an interception on the game’s penultimate play.

“It was a good start for us, but we have a long way to go for what we’re trying to accomplish,” Diggs said. “I feel like it’s a very good start and we have a good team coming.”