COLUMBIA, S.C. — Nick Saban compared it to when a boxer gets cut after taking his first legitimate hit to the face and weathering the ensuing “assault.”
Terrell Lewis said it was a necessary wake-up call to remind the mighty Crimson Tide defense exactly what it’ll face throughout the remainder of Southeastern Conference play.
“Man, it’s what we needed,” the Alabama junior linebacker said Saturday. “We needed a game to kind of get us started and get us to realize, OK, it’s SEC ball now and every week is going to be a challenge. We needed a game like that because game’s like that usually come later in the season for us.”
But in reality, Saturday’s 47-23 win over an upset-minded South Carolina was simply another example that No. 2 Alabama (3-0, 1-0 SEC) still has plenty of work to do defensively before it’s ready for its own championship rematch.
“We got the win, but we know we’re not satisfied with how the game went on, we have some stuff to work on,” said senior linebacker Anfernnee Jennings, who’s third-quarter strip-sack was among several opportunistic plays defensively Saturday. “We have to go back to the drawing board on Monday and get stuff cleaned up.”
Behind some obvious lapses from the young center of its defense, the Crimson Tide surrendered 459 total yards on 86 plays and repeatedly struggled to slow down a potent Gamecocks passing attack between the 20s, including allowing 8-of-18 third-down conversions in the game.
“We don’t have enough players to get through the season if we play 86 plays of defense every week,” Saban said. “But the defense has to get off the field. We had opportunities to get off the field on third down, had way too many penalties in the game. We stopped ourselves with penalties and we helped them with penalties on defense. … There’s a lot of fixing to do.”
South Carolina freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski, who was making just his second career start Saturday after replacing injured senior Jake Bentley last week, threw for 324 yards on 36-of-57 passing and picked apart an Alabama defense that only buckled down inside the red zone, limiting the Gamecocks (1-2, 0-1 SEC) to just two touchdowns despite multiple opportunities for more.
“We definitely have to get better because today, that wasn’t it,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said. “But we’ll get better. There’s still room for improvement. So we’ll work on that.”
McKinney’s interception in the end zone with 9:55 remaining in the game capped an up-and-down performance all the way around defensively, but it also represented a lot of what went right for the unit Saturday.
Alabama forced a pair of turnovers, roughed up Hilinski with three sacks and took advantage of several South Carolina missteps on critical but necessary gambles in the game. That included a heads-up tackle by second-year receiver Slade Bolden on a fake punt run by Gamecocks receiver Shi Smith with 6 minutes left in a difficult second quarter that was emphatically capped by a goal-line stand after allowing South Carolina to get inside the 1-yard line just before halftime.
“We got two or three stops in the red zone, which were really key for us to get ahead in the game,” Saban said. “They did a great job of stopping them in the red zone when they needed to, but it was a little disappointing better between (the 20-yard lines).”
The Tide defense should’ve had another interception from sophomore cornerback Patrick Surtain II midway through the first quarter but a substitution infraction for having 12 men on the field negated the pick and allowed South Carolina to keep charging.
And the host Gamecocks took their chances, including on a fake field goal try that kicker Parker White turned into 40-yard touchdown run that would’ve given South Carolina a 10-7 lead midway through the first quarter but a holding penalty negated the score.
“We felt like the field goal fake was there,” Muschamp said. “The first field goal attempt on the hash, that was the look they were going for in the game, they don’t necessarily change up their look, so we knew right then, we got the look that we wanted. Those are all things that we talk about through the week and they’re up for us every week.”
Four plays later, Alabama’s offense answered when quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hit junior receiver Henry Ruggs III on a slant for an 81-yard touchdown pass — the second of five scores on a career-best 444-yard passing day for Tagovailoa — to go ahead 14-3 with 3:15 left in the first quarter.
And the Crimson Tide needed every bit of Tagovailoa’s career-day Saturday after its defense allowed South Carolina eight different scoring opportunities inside the Alabama 30-yard line, five of which resulted in points (three field goals and two touchdowns).
Against a cross-divisional opponent that isn’t even expected to compete in the SEC East, it was a rude awakening for a defense that prides itself on being among the stingiest in college football.
Of course, it was that experience that has Tide defenders believing Saturday was a necessary lesson in its natural progression this season.
“(It was) SEC football, getting back into SEC play knowing every opponent’s going to give us their best play,” Lewis said. “It was basically a wake-up call for us, for our defense.”