Turnovers propel defense to rout of Western Carolina

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Turnovers propel defense to rout of Western Carolina

Junior safety Xavier McKinney returns an interception 81 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter against Western Carolina. (CW / Joe Will Field)

Junior safety Xavier McKinney returns an interception 81 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter against Western Carolina. (CW / Joe Will Field)

Junior safety Xavier McKinney returns an interception 81 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter against Western Carolina. (CW / Joe Will Field)

Junior safety Xavier McKinney returns an interception 81 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter against Western Carolina. (CW / Joe Will Field)

Jack Kennedy | @jwkennedy24, Staff Reporter

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Forcing turnovers has not been an issue for Alabama all season, with the defense forcing at least one every game. Saturday was no different, with the Crimson Tide forcing a season-high five turnovers in a 66-3 rout of Western Carolina.

“The five turnovers were probably big in terms of score ending up the way it did,” coach Nick Saban said. “… I’m pretty pleased with the overall performance of how the defense played and the turnovers that they got.”

After junior safety Xavier McKinney intercepted a pass on the first drive, senior defensive backs Shyheim Carter and Trevon Diggs deflected a pass from Western Carolina quarterback Tyrie Adams on the ensuing drive. It was McKinney, though, who was covering behind them and intercepted the pass.

Following a barrage of Alabama defenders, McKinney found the sideline and ran untouched for an 81-yard interception return for a touchdown.

“I’m taught to run to the ball wherever the ball is at, so I ran to the reception area, and I saw the tip,” McKinney said. “I caught it and saw grass in front of me.”

Despite shutting out the Catamounts in the first quarter, the Alabama defense struggled for most of the quarter, allowing 84 yards and five plays of more than 10 yards. On both of the turnovers by McKinney, Western Carolina was driving down the field — both occurred inside of the 25-yard line of the Crimson Tide.

“They kind of got us confused a little on some formations and shifted some motions to start the game, but once we settled down, we were good,” Saban told the Crimson Tide Sports Network at halftime.

Early in the second quarter, both McKinney and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Christian Barmore blitzed Adams, forcing a throwaway attempt that McKinney batted back down to the quarterback. With Adams trying to escape the duo, McKinney punched the ball out from behind, allowing sophomore defensive back Patrick Surtain II to recover the fumble.

The improvement for the defense from the first quarter to the second quarter was quite evident, as the Crimson Tide allowed just 14 yards compared to 84 in the first quarter. Despite controlling the clock with 10:29 of possession time in the second quarter, four of the five Catamount drives resulted in a three-and-out, with the other only being four plays.

Senior safety Jared Mayden continued the defense’s dominance after halftime, jumping in front of a slant route and intercepting the pass despite the Catamounts trying to confuse the Crimson Tide defense by motioning a receiver toward the strong side of the play.

On the next drive for Western Carolina, Barmore and freshman inside linebacker Christian Harris pressured Adams and forced an errant, lofted pass that Mayden was able to get under to secure his second interception of the game.

“When we were warming up, [people] were coming around, reminding the seniors, ‘This is your last game in the stadium so you want to leave your mark and have a good memory for your last game,’” Mayden said. “I really just focused on how I wanted to be remembered, like ‘What is the last game that people are going to see Jared Mayden in the stadium?’ It turned out great.”

Despite three members of the defensive line sustaining injuries last week against Mississippi State, getting into the backfield was no problem for the young defensive line, as it totaled two quarterback hits and 4.5 tackles for a loss.

“I felt like we were controlling the line of scrimmage pretty well,” Saban said. “Obviously their guys aren’t as big and as physical as what we are going to face in the future, but I was not disappointed, and I am sure the experience did them a lot of good.”