ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s no secret the 2019 season wasn’t a banner year for Alabama football. The defense, the team’s linchpin for a decade, was ravaged by the Crimson Tide’s two most bitter division rivals. Having not allowed more than 45 points in 12 years under coach Nick Saban, it did so twice in the same November.
So when Michigan gained 181 yards in the first quarter of Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl and put together four straight scoring drives, it seemed like more of the same.
But the defense didn’t self-destruct, like it did right before halftime against LSU. It locked down.
After allowing 286 yards before halftime, it gave up just 109 after. In Crimson Tide’s 35-16 season-ending win, it lost the first half 16-14 but won the second half 21-0.
“It took us a while to get our sea legs under us,” Saban said.
The Wolverines were moving the ball with ease early on. Their four scoring drives averaged 10 plays apiece and two of them exceeded four minutes.
Saban said Michigan’s success running the ball, with five rushes of at least 11 yards in the first quarter, was mostly out of two-tight-end formations. Alabama initially defended them with its “regular” defense, consisting of two cornerbacks and two safeties, but then switched to nickel, removing a lineman and adding a slot cornerback.
“It’s easier to adjust [in nickel] and the players did a really good job of that,” Saban said. “And we were able to pressure more, which really helped us stop the run.”
Michigan’s longest run over the final three quarters was nine yards.
Several of those runs were to the right side, with blockers paving the way for running back Zach Charbonnet. After two solid gains on that play, Wolverines offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, last year’s Alabama receivers coach, called a play where the right guard faked pulling while the running back broke out on a wheel route.
Alabama freshman linebacker Shane Lee, reading the run, stepped up, allowing Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson plenty of space to find his open receiver for a gain of 40 yards.
There was another play where redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Chris Allen, making his first career start, dropped back right before the snap to cover the slot receiver even though senior safety Jared Mayden was already covering the slot.
Sophomore cornerback Josh Jobe, on the other hand, was making his second career start and made a number of impactful plays. Michigan threw at him on two of the game’s first three plays — both incompletions.
At the end of the first half, he made a nice open-field tackle and broke up a deep Patterson pass near the end zone.
With the game out of hand and Michigan merely looking to narrow the final margin, Patterson tossed a Hail Mary on the game and the season’s final play, but Jobe leaped up and intercepted it.
“He was great,” sophomore cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. “He was physical at the point of attack, he played the ball well and he was excellent in coverage.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said in his postgame press conference that his offense moved the ball well but struggled to finish drives. It had first-and-10 at the 20- and 28-yard lines but ended both drives with field goals. The Wolverines’ final scoring play was a 57-yard field goal to end the first half.
It was still only a 28-16 lead with six minutes left in the fourth quarter, but senior cornerback Shyheim Carter intercepted a deep pass from Patterson.
The turning point may have been early in the third quarter, when junior safety Xavier McKinney burst around the corner untouched on a third-and-9 blitz and sacked Patterson. Forcing a punt for the first time since early in the first quarter set the tone for the second-half shutout
McKinney finished with 10 total tackles (four solo), including that sack.
“I just try to play wherever coach wants me to play,” McKinney said. “I try to make plays wherever I’m put at. I try to put my team in the best situation that they can be in to be successful in every down.”
With the win, Alabama records it ninth consecutive 11-win season and, at the very least, showed that the character of the Crimson Tide defenses of old is still in there somewhere.
“I think they wanted to prove that this is the culture that was established for a number of years here by a lot of good players,” Saban said. “I think they have a lot of pride in that and I think they wanted to come out today and prove that this is what Alabama football, the culture of Alabama football is really all about.”