Alabama's Defense Gears Up for First Matchup Against Mike Leach's Air-Raid Offense
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama sophomore linebacker Christian Harris knows exactly what to do when it comes to preparing for Alabama football’s upcoming matchup against Mississippi State.
“I think they have a lot of weapons on offense,” Harris said. “They can throw the ball 70 times a game. They have a great offense. It will be a great challenge for us. The coaches will put together a game plan for us and we have to make sure we execute it.”
Trust in his coaches.
And trust in them he should. Over the last five weeks, the Crimson Tide’s defense has slowly but surely improved from week-to-week. The Ole Miss game where Alabama allowed 48 points to Lane Kiffin and his Rebels seemed to have been a wake-up call. Since that day, the Crimson Tide allowed exactly half of those points against Georgia before allowing only 17 last Saturday at Tennessee.
For Harris, the growth in communication on defense has been the primary key to the defense seeing better success.
“I think communication has improved week by week,” Harris said. “I think a lot of the young guys we have on defense like Malachi [Moore] — he’s a great player — are becoming more and more confident each week and that makes the defense as a whole more confident each week as well.
“I think we’ll get better and better each week.”
Alabama faces a tough defensive test in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday as Mike Leach and his air-raid style Bulldogs offense comes to town. Mississippi State is averaging 76 plays per game and 386 yards per outing.
An average of 57.5 plays per game are passes while 18.5 are rushes. Offenses like that have a way of tiring defense, but Harris doesn’t seem too concerned with the challenge.
“Most every game we play there are a lot of plays, but I don’t think it matters because throughout the week, coach [Nick Saban] makes sure practices are harder than the game,” Harris said. “It’s always harder in practice, so he does a good job of preparing us for the game.”
Speaking of Saban, the Crimson Tide coach — who will also turn 69 this Saturday — noted that Mississippi State presents a threat on defense as well as the offense.
Saban seems to be well-aware of just exactly what to expect from Leach and his offense, just like Harris.
“Mike Leach, everybody knows about the kind of offense they run,” Saban said. “Very pass-oriented offense, lot of spread formations. Do a really good job of executing it. But defensively, they've really played well this year. They're one of the top defensive teams in the league. Play hard. Very physical. Got a little different kind of scheme.
“This is really going to kind of be a little bit different kind of preparation for us on both sides of the ball relative to what we normally see, so it'll be very challenging for the players and we definitely need to do a great job of getting them prepared for what they're going to see in this week's game.”
Saban clearly understands the challenge that Mississippi State presents for his defense. In the Bulldogs’ opening game against LSU, Leach’s offense accounted for 44 points and 632 total yards on offense. Senior quarterback K.J. Costello accounted for five passing touchdowns as his Bulldogs took down the defending national champions in week one of the season.
Leach’s offense does show some weaknesses though, particularly against zone defense. Since Mississippi State’s opening-weekend win over LSU, the Bulldogs have lost all three of their games against Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M. While that hasn’t been the easiest of schedules, a key factor in the sharp decline in their offensive production has been the effectiveness of zone defense vs. man coverage.
While Saban admits that zone has been effective against Mississippi State, he does not underestimate the Bulldogs’ and K.J. Costello’s ability to adapt.
“Well I think their concepts on offense, this is one of the — I don’t know the best word to describe it, it’s not really exotic — but it’s really, really a good system in terms of how they spread you on the field,” Saban said. “The pattern concepts they use and I think that they do a really good job of coaching the quarterback when it’s man-to-man and when it’s zone and how to take advantage of it. I think that people who have played really good zone against them break on the ball. I mean, you have to tackle well in space when you do that. You have to break on the ball and you got to force them to sort of take some of the shorter throws and not make explosive plays which they’ve shown the capability of doing when you’re playing man-to-man concepts.
“I can’t tell you exactly why that is. But when you’re that spread out on the field and they’ve got five guys going out for a pass all the time and you’re horizontally stretched like you are, when you play man-to-man, somebody gets beat and you have an issue. When you play zone you have a better chance to play inside out and break on the ball.”
Regardless, Saban, Harris and the entire Alabama defense will most likely have its hands full when it takes on Leach, Costello and Mississippi State this Saturday (6 p.m. CT, ESPN).