Xavier McKinney saw the turning point in the fourth quarter of the Tennessee game — and not the one everyone else saw.
Most will remember the final quarter of that game for Trevon Diggs’ 100-yard fumble return, swinging what could’ve been a one-possession game to a 22-point win soon clouded in cigar smoke. McKinney, the University of Alabama’s junior defensive back, saw the turning point of the season for the youthful defense in front of him.
“I thought even though they scored 13, I thought we played really good in the fourth quarter, and that’s what we pride ourselves on,” McKinney said. “That game, defensively, I thought we played well and I saw it kind of come together.
“We took a lot of strides. I feel like we have a lot more to take. I feel like where we’re at now is not the top of where we can be. We’re still reaching for the best that we can be.”
The UA defense thinks it is finding the best version of itself and doing so with good timing, as No. 2 UA gets its much anticipated matchup with No. 1 LSU after an open week this week. UA held its last two opponents to fewer than 250 yards, the first time it’s done so this season, and held consecutive SEC opponents to fewer than 14 points.
Now it enters an open week that gives it a little extra time to prepare for LSU, with the Crimson Tide starting that on Thursday, but moreso an extra couple of days to focus on itself.
“Things are picking up a lot, but we still got things to work on, we still got stuff to prove,” senior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis said. “It’s the little things. It’s not just pass rushing and making the tackle. It’s communication, that’s where it all starts and we got to get better at reading formations quicker.
“We can use it (the open week), but we got to work on the little things, tackling better. The stuff we’re struggling with.”
It’s easy to take a self-critical approach after opponent adjusting the recent performance.
The recent run of defense has been UA’s best of the season by nearly any measure: the 4.1 yards per pass attempt allowed against Arkansas are the best of the season, for instance, and the three interceptions in that game are UA’s most against a conference opponent since the 2016 SEC Championship Game against Florida. However, those performances also came against some of the nation’s worst offenses.
Bill Connelly’s SP+, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency, has the Tennessee and Arkansas offenses ranked 79th and 99th in the nation, respectively; Alabama held them to 3.79 and 3.8 yards per play, respectively. UA did not fare as well in its meetings with South Carolina (69th in SP+, 5.34 yards per play against Alabama) and Texas A&M (26th in SP+, 5.56 yards per play).
UA’s trip to College Station was its only opportunity against an offense currently in the top 50 of SP+, so it is uncertain if UA is ill-prepared for nationally elite offenses. What is certain is LSU is one of them, third in SP+.
While the focus has not fully shifted to LSU, Alabama knows enough to know its defensive results of late are about to receive their most strenuous challenge.
“They are a very explosive offense, you know they have a great system going on over there,” cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. “Quarterback is pretty good, they have great receivers. We are just looking forward to it.”
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