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October 6, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ It was the second time the University of Alabama defense was in dire straits, but had the confidence from not flinching the initial go-around.
Florida had driven all the way to the Crimson Tide 1-yard line on its opening possession Saturday, yet learned the hard way that it probably wouldn't be able to plow into the end zone. So after junior defensive end Marcell Dareus stuffed Trey Burton on quarterback draw for a 1-yard loss the Gators called for a jump pass that was picked off in the end zone by sophomore linebacker Nico Johnson.
Here they were again late in the third quarter, Alabama with a commanding 31-6 lead but Florida again knocking on the door. A pass-interference penalty gave the Gators first down at the 2, and a handoff resulted in just a 1-yard gain. With center Mike Pouncey continuing to have trouble snapping the ball in shotgun formation it was no time for tricks or gimmicks.
Only Alabama enjoyed the same result, another turnover, this through the domino effect with the first tile toppled by junior nose guard Josh Chapman. His burst penetrated the Florida line to hold up the left guard who was trying to pull to his right. Instead, his right foot tripped up quarterback John Brantley, who in turn didn't get the ball to his running back, resulting in a fumble recovered by junior linebacker Courtney Upshaw.
"We knew our back was up against the ball," Chapman said. "I remember seeing the ball right up against the goal-line and I was like, 'We can't give this up.' We thought they were going to come right in there with it and we all knuckled down to try and get some penetration."
In essence, No. 1 Alabama crushed No. 7 Florida because it could execute a 1-yard touchdown run, by junior running back Mark Ingram in second quarter, while the Gators could not. That and the Crimson Tide added to its impressive turnover total, with five of 13 inside its own 20.
That area, known as the red zone, could be just as important Saturday, when No. 19 South Carolina will have the advantage of a boisterous home crowd.
"They get everyone in there, that's for sure," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said about the Tide's stands. "They cover pretty well if you're trying to throw as well. Sometimes against teams like this you don't want to get to the one-yard line. You want to get to the seven or eight. Sometimes it's easier to score from that distance.
"One thing I like about (offensive line coach) Shawn Elliott is he likes to stay spread out down there. That's what we've been doing and we've been a lot better running the ball in than we have in the past. Whether or not we can do it this week and if we get down there (we'll see), but we plan on getting down there."
Actually, that has been more of an issue for Alabama, at least statistically. While the Crimson Tide has allowed just 9.0 points per game, which leads the nation, it hasn't been near as successful in some other categories.
It's third in passing-efficiency defense (90.72 rating), 19th against the run (101 yards per game), 20th in total defense (292.4), 50th in pass defense (191.4) and 107th in sacks (1.00) -- although every Alabama fans knows the defense was all over Brantley despite getting just one sack.
The red zone, though, has been all crimson so far this season. By limiting Florida to three points in four opportunities (the Gators drove to the 17 on another possession only to be backed up by a penalty before making a field goal from the 21), Alabama has allowed just two touchdowns in 14 red-zone possessions for 14.29 percent, which tops the nation.
It also means that opponents have been more than twice as likely to turn the ball over in the red zone than score a touchdown.
Coming in, the Gators had scored on 15 consecutive possessions inside the 20, including 14 touchdowns.
"I think that playing in the red zone is a really important part of being a good defensive team," Coach Nick Saban said.
"I think there are a combination of things that make you a good defensive team. Most of the time when you don't give up big plays, you play well in the red zone and you get pretty hard to score on. We've probably given up a few too many big plays. I don't know what the average number of opportunities for a team to be in the red zone at this point in the season would be, we've played five times and they've been down there 14 times. I don't think that is too many but I don't really know."
Actually, it's a little better than average. Among SEC teams Arkansas has allowed the fewest red-zone possessions, eight in four games, while Ole Miss has had the most, 19.
While the last two opponents, Arkansas and Florida, had more big plays (Saban defines a big play as a run of 16 yards or more or a pass of 21 yards or more) than Alabama, the longest pass the Tide has yielded this season was 49 yards, and the longest carry 32 yards, both to San Jose State with neither resulting in a touchdown.
However, South Carolina has been impressive in the red zone too.
Defensively, the Gamecocks rank second in the SEC behind Alabama, limiting opponents to 10 scores in 16 opportunities (62.5 percent), but just four touchdowns (25 percent). Their offense tops the league, though, with 15 scores in 16 chances (93.8 percent), 13 touchdowns and one turnover.
Something's going to have to give in Columbia.
"It's just the mentality," sophomore safety Robert Lester, who still leads the SEC with four interceptions, but cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is one of numerous players with three. "Keep them off the board as much as possible."
In comparison, Alabama's offense has scored on 20 of 23 red-zone possessions, with 15 touchdowns (65 percent). All three times it didn't score the Tide turned the ball over (tied for the most in the SEC with Florida and LSU), due to two Eddie Lacy fumbles and a Greg McElroy pass intercepted at Arkansas.
Overall, that's a huge improvement from last year when the Tide finished 108th in red-zone touchdown percentage, scoring just 28 touchdowns in 59 opportunities (47.5).
This season's touchdown breakdown is nine rushing and six passing, but the real difference is seen in McElroy's numbers. In 2009 he completed just 14 for 40 passes in the red zone, 35 percent, including 1 of 14 attempts to wide receiver Julio Jones.
This year he's 12-of-19, and there's only a slight dip from his overall completion percentage, 63.2 inside the 20 vs.69.9.
Practicing against his own defense, both years, probably helped a lot. In 2009, led by All-Americans Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas among others, Alabama's defense only gave up eight touchdowns out of 24 red-zone chances (33.3 percent), with eight field goals.
"The key thing is when you get there you have to play the next play," Saban said.
"Our guys have competed very well down there. You have to give them credit for the tenacity that they have. Would we rather have played and never let a team get down there? Sure. But we were better in the red zone last year and I think that contributed to our success and that is something that we have emphasized this year with this team and it is certainly something that has been good for us so far."