TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama's defense is suffocating enough to allow the Tide to win ugly, like No. 1 Oklahoma did last week at Florida State and like No. 2 LSU does routinely.
But No. 3 Alabama has Trent Richardson, so it doesn't need to.
We could break down the details of how cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick shut down Arkansas receiver Greg Childs or of how linebacker Dont'a Hightower helped disrupt the Razorbacks' rushing attack in the Tide's 38-14 rout of the nation's No. 14 team ... but that's just not as fun as watching Richardson take a screen pass and bust it 61 yards to the end zone.
"We want to have a running game where big plays are a possibility, and we have the backs to make it happen," said 'Bama offensive lineman Barrett Jones. "If you make a hole, they're going to make the secondary miss."
Alabama's defense held Bobby Petrino's normally high-powered Arkansas offense to 209 yards Saturday, including just 17 on the ground. While that's indisputably impressive, it's not exactly surprising. Alabama's defense was widely considered the nation's best entering the season, and the Tide have done nothing so far to suggest that reputation was off base.
But for all of Arkansas' playmakers, it was Alabama that scored four touchdowns of at least 25 yards Saturday. The Tide did so in every conceivable fashion: on a fake field goal, where quarterback AJ McCarron threw a 37-yard score to tight end Michael Williams; on a 25-yard interception return, where cornerback DeQuan Menize caught a deflection off of ... himself; on a winding, electrifying 83-yard Marquis Maze punt return; and on the aforementioned 61-yard Richardson run.
"Everyone was talking about Arkansas' receivers and how they make big plays," said Maze. "It made us extra hungry. I think we make big plays, too."
For 'Bama coach Nick Saban, the game followed precisely the formula he needs if the Tide hope to make a run to New Orleans. With a solid but still developing first-year quarterback in McCarron (who was 15-of-20 for 200 yards and two touchdowns Saturday) and a swarming, suffocating defense, Saban's team really only needs a few big plays to break open a ballgame.
And Richardson only needs a handful of touches to deliver those plays.
After two years sharing carries with former Heisman winner Mark Ingram, Alabama's junior tailback took over primary duties this season -- only to find he's still sharing snaps, now with sophomore Eddie Lacy. On Saturday Richardson had 17 carries -- fewer than half of the 37 South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore totaled last weekend -- and three receptions, for a modest 20 offensive touches. Lacy had 13 carries.
"Keeping both those guys fresh is really important for us," said Saban.
But when Richardson wasn't on the sideline or acting as a decoy, he was totaling 211 yards of offense, or 10.6 yards per touch.
Richardson ran for gains of nine and 21 yards on Alabama's first two offensive plays. He got two more handoffs shortly thereafter before the Tide punted -- and then he didn't touch the ball again for more than a quarter. Once he did, he broke off a 31-yard gain.
But Richardson plays just as important a role as McCarron's safety valve. Twice when McCarron felt the pressure on top of him, he quickly flipped the ball to Richardson, who promptly darted for a first down. "I always tell him, if you're in trouble, I'm there," said Richardson. Later, with 'Bama up 24-7, McCarron nearly caused his own trouble when his slip screen to Richardson barely rose above the reach of an Arkansas defensive lineman. But it made its way to the target, who sprung a block, made a couple guys miss and dashed 61 yards for the dagger score.
"[Richardson] and Eddie need to be explosive players for us," said Saban, whose one concern with his offense thus far is the lack of a vertical threat. "I know everyone wants to see long passes from us, but we're the kind of team that's going to need big plays in the running game."
That shouldn't be a problem as long as he has his 5-foot-11, 224-pound, dreadlocked sparkplug. Richardson is arguably the most complete back in the country, though sometimes it's tough to make that case since he's not carrying the ball 35 times a game like Lattimore or throwing up 200-yard games like Oregon's LaMichael James. Auburn fans would surely argue Richardson is not even the best running back in his state, citing Tigers sophomore star Michael Dyer.
But the Bryant Denny Stadium press box was filled Saturday with NFL scouts, all of whom would surely jump to land a guy who can bench 475 pounds while remaining the fastest guy on the field. Best of all, Richardson is perfectly content to be the jack-of-all-trades Saban requires.
"I don't care how many times I touch the ball," said Richardson. "If Eddie's having a good game, if Marquis is having a good game, if AJ is having a good game -- I'm going to be out there blocking for them. That's what it takes to be a complete back."
Before we go moving Richardson up the Heisman lists or anointing Alabama as a great offensive team, it should be noted that Arkansas' defense played all or most of the game without three key injured players: defensive ends Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright and cornerback Isaac Madison. It's a wonder Petrino's team held in as long as it did, even mounting a goal-line stand (three straight stops from the one-yard-line) midway through the second quarter.
Alabama's offense will face a stiffer test next weekend at No. 15 Florida, which entered Saturday with the nation's seventh-ranked defense. But Chris Rainey and the Gators' offense are about to face an even stiffer reality check against Alabama's defense.
Whether it's next week or at a later date (most likely the already anticipated 'Bama-LSU showdown on Nov. 5), there will come a time when Saban's defense is only able to do so much. When that happens, someone is going to have to break a big play.
So long as he gets the ball, Richardson will probably be the guy to do it.