NASHVILLE — Vanderbilt couldn’t run the ball, and in a game that is sometimes made more complicated than it has to be, that was all she wrote for the Commodores’ chances.
It’s easy to be blinded by the stats, how Alabama held Vanderbilt to three first downs and 38 total plays and 78 total yards, but the story of the game defensively for UA was that it limited its opponent to 2.5 yards per carry. With no success to show for it, Vanderbilt eventually gave up trying to run the ball, rushing it a total of 15 times (not counting quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s scramble).
Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt’s career leading rusher, ran six times for 20 yards. With no running game to have to honor, Alabama pressured and pummeled Shurmur. UA was credited with only three quarterback hurries, but it hit and hurried him more than that to the point where he exited the game in the third quarter, not to return.
“Defensively, these guys are really a tough preparation for their formations and motions, and I think our guys did a really good job of keeping leverage on the formations and stopped their running game,” UA coach Nick Saban said.
Controlling the running game was something the defense didn’t do against Colorado State a week earlier, as the Rams rushed for 144 yards. But with the return of outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings, who might be the team’s best edge setter on defense, and Rashaan Evans at middle linebacker, and with defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne’s ability to consistently disrupt in the middle, UA dominated.
“We knew that we haven’t played our best game yet,” senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said. “Today we came out and played to the standard that Coach Saban always talks about. We some good momentum (to take) going in to SEC play.”
Getting Jennings and Evans back didn’t just help in one area. Their return had a cumulative effect on the rest of the defense, particularly younger players who could focus on their position and not have to cross-train.
“I think two things happened,” Saban said. “I think (Jennings and Evans) … they both played well. They both practiced well. I think their leadership is very helpful,” Saban said.
“But I also think that the other players that played, Chris Allen, Josh McMillon, Jamey Mosley, those guys are developing a little more confidence in those positions too. We had to teach Mack Wilson to play the position that Rashaan plays in Dime Rabbit. Well, that was a work in progress until he finally got comfortable with that. Not only does it hurt you in one spot when you lose those guys, but you have to change guys in they lose the cumulative affect of all their reps.”
Alabama’s ability to dominate in rush defense kept Vanderbilt in third-and-long for most of the game, which led to the Commodores’ 10 percent (1 of 10) third-down conversion rate. That allowed UA to stay in nickel/dime, perhaps its best personnel grouping, for most of the game.
“We had a lot of longer yardage situations where we could play dime,” Saban said. “That gives us more speed on the field.”