1114 Alabama defense

Alabama defenders Da'Shawn Hand (9), Keith Holcombe, (42), Hootie Jones (6), Da'Ron Payne (94) and Rashaan Evans (32) look to the sideline for a call during Saturday night's game at Mississippi State.

KENT GIDLEY / UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA

TUSCALOOSA – Amid mounting injury concerns across the board, Alabama’s SEC-leading run defense appeared to get exposed in Saturday’s 31-24 last-minute win over No. 16 Mississippi State.

Behind a combination of physical Bulldogs running back Aeris Williams and the Tim Tebow-esque style of 6-foot-5 quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State battered the second-ranked Crimson Tide for a season-worst 172 rushing yards.

In fact, Alabama’s yards-per-game-allowed average jumped by a full 10 yards following the Bulldogs’ success on the ground Saturday.

“I think we need to play the run better, but I also think we played two teams that were committed to being able to run the ball,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said Monday. “They ran the ball better than we'd like, but at the end of the day when you (look at) the stats on this last game, I think they had what, 3.8 or 3.5 yards per carry – something like that – which is not really that bad. They just did it a lot.”

In the four games in which opponents have rushed at least 40 times, Alabama (10-0, 7-0 SEC) has allowed more than 140 rushing yards three times – including a 144 rushing yards on 40 carries against Colorado State.

The lone exception was at Texas A&M, where the Aggies totaled 40 carries but only managed 71 rushing yards for an average of just 1.78 yards per carry.

But in the last two weeks, the Tide run defense has allowed both LSU and Mississippi State to combine for 323 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

For context, Alabama’s run defense had allowed 290 rushing yards and just a single rushing touchdown in its previous five SEC games combined.

Now, as Alabama prepares for its pre-Iron Bowl matchup with Mercer this coming Saturday, Tide players are seeking to work on what’s been ailing them defensively. Senior inside linebacker Rashaan Evans said it starts with his group. Keith Holcombe and true freshman Dylan Moses played next to Evans on Saturday night.

“I think we need to, as a defense, we’re going to really emphasize that this week on getting better as far as controlling the middle,” senior linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “Most of that (success) came from just running up the middle, so once we get better as far as just gap schemes and all those little things I feel like it’ll help us out in the long run.”

Prior to Saturday, the Bulldogs were averaging nearly 260 rushing yards per game, and was held to a season-low 3.5 yards per carry average against Alabama, which fit right in line where Saban can handle it.

“Stopping the run, to me, is more about how many yards per play do you get than how many yards they gained,” Saban said.

In that context, Alabama remains one of the nation’s elite run defense, limiting both LSU and MSU to 3.6 yards per carry or less. In fact, no opponent this season has averaged more than 3.6 yards per carry – with only Colorado State and LSU achieving that feat.

But when asked about the issue Monday, Saban pointed to the constant shuffling that has taken place along Alabama’s front seven this season due to repeated injuries.

“I think that when you have changes, whether you make changes or whether those changes are inevitable because of players missing or whatever, those things are all things that have some impact on how you’re able to play and what you’re able to do,” Saban said.

“Whether it’s how you communicate, the guys getting in the right things, doing the right things, not making mental errors, or having the confidence that every player out there is going to be able to do what he needs to do effectively.”

While not necessarily an excuse, at least part of Alabama’s issues stopping the run Saturday stemmed from not having experienced and reliable tackler Shaun Dion Hamilton calling plays in the middle.

“I think that stability of the defense has to be created through confidence in the signal-caller making the right calls, doing the right things, getting us in the right place and everyone having the confidence to do their job,” Saban said. “And we did that for a great part of the game, (but) there were times where we had breakdowns that were costly.”

Evans agreed there were some growing pains when it comes to the on-field communication, which was noticeably lacking at times. He added that it’s his job to help Holcombe and Moses, who both saw time filling in for Hamilton.

“Just for us individually as linebackers, I feel like now all we can do is go back and just help each other,” said Evans, who ranked second on the team with nine tackles, including 2½ for loss and a sack.

“There’s a lot of things that Keith can tell me (that I can) do better, there’s things I can tell Keith that he can do better. Not just with Keith, but Dylan, too. I feel like us as a group, we’re all just going to build off each other and get better.”

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