TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The clock was running down and the University of Alabama was putting the finishing touches on a 35-17 season-opening victory against No. 20 Wisconsin on Saturday night, when Nick Saban didn’t like what he saw from the defense.
His team had scored three touchdowns while yielding just a field goal in the second half until the Badgers pieced together a late seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive against the Crimson Tide’s reserves.
Although the game was still out of reach, Saban sent a message to all of his players by reinserting the first unit for Wisconsin’s final possession, with 1:12 to go.
“I was a little surprised,” senior cornerback Cyrus Jones said about being reinserted “That usually doesn’t happen, but coach wasn’t happy with the second team and I guess he felt more comfortable when we went back out there, so we gotta do what he says.
“It’s all good for me. I don’t mind getting back out there on the field. First game I like to be on the field as much as I can, so it was all right.”
While the sequence resulted in the game’s only turnover, an interception by junior Eddie Jackson, “all right” might be an accurate description of how the secondary played as a whole.
With head coach Paul Chryst never pulling his starters, Wisconsin put together three scoring drives and passed for 268 yards and two touchdowns.
It didn’t matter to Saban that he had three players in the secondary making their first starts at their positions and true freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick at the "star" position—the fifth defensive back when the defense uses a nickel formation. The coach knows that the group as a whole has to step up for the Crimson Tide to have at shot at a title this season.
Despite some growing pains, for the most part it did.
“We had three pass interference [penalties], unnecessary penalties that were probably caused by lack of fundamental discipline and execution of technique,” Saban said. “We didn’t give up as many explosive plays, but there’s lots of room for improvement. We didn’t do as good of a job on third down as we need to, especially in the first half.
“So we’re not disappointed in where we are, but we certainly have a lot to improve on.”
Specifically, here’s how Alabama’s secondary did in the statistical areas that the coaches emphasize:
Turnovers: The team goal is to get three a game, and the secondary came close a few times before Jackson got the late pick. The Crimson Tide finished plus-one in turnover ratio as the offense didn’t give up anything.
Explosive plays: Saban defines them as a run of 13 or more yards or a pass of 17 or more yards. Alabama gave up three in the passing game, all to Alex Erickson in the first half, and the wide receiver also had the only explosive play in the running game on his 25-yard carry against the second-team defense.
Alabama gave up fewer than four explosive plays to an opponent four times last season (one to Texas A&M and Florida Atlantic, and three to LSU and Western Carolina). However, it yielded eight in the 2014 season opener to West Virginia, 11 to Ohio State and a season-high 14 to Auburn.
Penalties: The 11 penalties matched last year’s season high against Florida, which will be a point of emphasis during practices this week. The pass interference calls were on redshirt freshman cornerback Marlon Humphrey, Fitzpatrick and sophomore linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton.
Third downs: Wisconsin was 4-of-7 in the first half but just 2-of-7 in the second half when it all but abandoned the ineffective running game.
Although Wisconsin’s passing game looked mostly to the running backs and tight ends, who combined to make 17 receptions compared to just nine by the wide receivers (four in the final minutes), the defensive back it attacked the most was Fitzpatrick.
He was the primary defender on the sliding six-yard touchdown reception by Erickson but broke up the pass on the only other ball thrown his way during the first three quarters.
However, when Alabama brought in the second-team defense, with Fitzpatrick sliding over to cornerback, he was the defender on both the 14-yard gain to put the Badgers into the red zone and the three-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Robert Wheelwright. The pass interference penalty, when he didn’t turn back to see the ball, was what got him an earful from Saban.
“I think they’ll get more comfortable as they get more reps,” Jones said about the freshmen. “I think it’s all about being comfortable when the ball is in the air, just knowing what position you’re in and if you can look and if you can’t, so I think just with time they’ll get more comfortable and more aware of when they can use their hands and swat for the ball and stuff like that.”
Overall, the Badgers completed only one pass on Humphrey and none on Jones.
Meanwhile, Alabama made a lot of open-field tackles, with Jackson leading in solo stops with six. Fitzgerald and Humphrey both made three. With Wisconsin not attacking downfield much, preferring to split the zones or throw under the coverage, senior free safety Geno Matias-Smith had just three tackles.
The most yards after the catch that Wisconsin enjoyed were the nine by running back Dare Ogunbowale on a 12-yard gain. It was aided by a missed tackle when Alabama’s second-team defense was on the field.
Respectful of Alabama’s speed and range, the longest ball that quarterback Joel Stave threw, as in from the line of scrimmage to where the receiver made the catch, was 21 yards. Even with that cautious approach, the Crimson Tide came close to at least three other picks.
Combined with the relentless front seven, which knocked down four passes and notched three sacks, more chances are likely, especially if Alabama’s run defense continues to be exemplary.
For now it only leaves one conclusion, that the Crimson Tide will be tougher to throw against as the players gain more experience and continue to come together as a unit.
“It definitely makes your defense that much more dangerous,” Jones said about both Jackson and Matias-Smith having previously played cornerback. “We have no problem with kind of coming out and playing man-to-man against slots and things like that, we don’t have to go as much zone so I think it just puts the defense at a greater advantage.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.