Alabama's defense faces different test in Fournette, LSU
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Alabama's defense has changed with the times.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide still has 300-pounders clogging the line of scrimmage, but nowadays the biggest stars are the hard-to-block pass rushers like Jonathan Allen, mobile linebacker Reuben Foster and cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick.
It's a group tailor made for stopping all those hurry-up, spread-you-out offenses pervading college football while still defending the run as well as any team in the nation. Alabama has an open date to prepare for a different kind of test: Leonard Fournette and No. 19 LSU's formidable running game next weekend in Baton Rouge.
''That's one of the things that we're going to have to do a good job of because we probably don't have as many big guys as we've had in the past, because we were built in the past for teams like LSU who were I-formation, run downhill, very physical offensive line,'' Tide coach Nick Saban said. ''We're going to have to do a really good job with our guys up front. I think we've got some guys that can hang in there and play that type of game.''
They certainly did last season when Alabama held Fournette to 31 yards.
The Tide has hardly gone soft - or small - since the days when hulking Terrence Cody was monopolizing multiple blockers. But Saban & Co. have loaded up with speedy edge rushers like Allen and Tim Williams along with the beef.
Alabama still leads the nation in run defense, giving up 70 yards a game and only three touchdowns all season. Opposing runners are averaging a paltry 2.2 yards per carry.
The difference: The Tide is also tops with 32 sacks and nine defensive touchdowns in eight games. If Alabama lacks last season's abundance of 300-pounders, that's mostly because defensive tackles Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson moved on to the NFL as second-round draft picks.
Da'Ron Payne and Dalvin Tomlinson supply plenty of muscle on the line while the 291-pound Allen has made a succession of big plays, including six sacks, two fumble returns for touchdowns and an airborne sack of Texas A&M's Trevor Knight.
''Losing J. Reed and A'Shawn, you didn't really know how we were going to be on the D-line,'' Tide cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. ''Those guys just haven't really lost any slack. If anything they've gotten better. That's what's been the big surprise to me.''
Allen has been even more productive since returning for his senior season instead of entering the draft. Pro Football Focus gives him the highest rush grade of any interior defensive lineman while Foster gets the top grade overall among linebackers. PFF says Foster has missed only two tackles.
Allen has even been drawing some buzz as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. Not even his coach likes the chances of any defensive lineman to claim that trophy.
''I hope he does get considered and I think he would be a great candidate for it,'' Saban said.
Allen is just one of several productive quarterback chasers on the Tide defense. Linebackers Williams (6.5 sacks) and Ryan Anderson (4.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss) have also wreaked havoc in opposing backfields.
Now, the challenge will be to contain Fournette, who's coming off a 284-yard, three-touchdown performance against Mississippi.
No running back has gained more against Alabama than the 62 yards of Texas A&M's Keith Ford. The Tide held Tennessee's Jalen Hurd to 28 yards and the Aggies' Trayveon Williams to 23 yards.
Now, the Tide gets its turn at Fournette and backfield mate Derrius Guice.
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