Alabama football continues defensive growth in stuffing Kentucky rushing attack

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Nick Saban warned of a diverse Kentucky running attack, one Alabama had not seen in the season to date.

The Wildcats wasted little time making good on that promise.

Seven of Kentucky’s first eight plays featured presnap motion or a full-on formation shift and showed a variety of blocking schemes in the same span. Before the first quarter ended, Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson Jr. kept the ball on an option play and executed a lateral pitch from the shotgun — both preceded by formation shifts.

Alabama’s defense found comfort in the face of the new challenge, ultimately holding the Wildcats to 1.8 yards per carry in winning 63-3. That 1.8 yards per carry includes a 33-yard run on the second possession of the game.

Nov 21, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama defensive back Jordan Battle (9) stops Kentucky running back Kavosiey Smoke (22) short of the goal line at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports

“We made some mental errors on shifts and motions. We didn’t adjust properly, we’d lose the edge or we wouldn’t be in a gap properly,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “As the game went on, the players got more used to the rhythm of the game - the shifts, the motions. It really is a lot of stuff we’ve worked on. It’s just a matter of being a little apprehensive to do what they know is right in the game.”

Kentucky may not have been the best version of themselves Saturday. The Wildcats were missing leading rusher Chris Rodriguez, among other starters, and the offensive line remains reeling from the death of offensive line coach John Schlarman on Nov. 12 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Kentucky did have quarterback Terry Wilson Jr., the top rusher in the SEC among quarterbacks, and running back Asim Rose, now eighth in the SEC, averaging 5.52 yards per carry.

But most importantly, for the purposes of evaluating Alabama’s defense, it had the aforementioned schematic elements. It had shifts, motions, options and quarterback runs that were quite replicated in most of the offenses UA faced previously.

Defending those elements does not completely clear UA of its defensive issues from early in the season — the ones that led to Ole Miss racking up 647 yards of offense. UA has yet to face a similar offensive scheme operating that efficiently, and may not do so until the postseason, but it has incrementally shown improvement in some of the key areas.

In its previous game against Mississippi State, Alabama showed a knack for open-field tackling it had not displayed to that point. On Saturday, it showed the acumen to adjust to new things.

“It makes you be more sound in gap control,” UA linebacker Christian Harris said. “We struggled with that a little bit in the first quarter, but once we got adjusted, I thought we handled it pretty well.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson