The defensive game plan that Alabama has concocted for beating the most-dangerous passer in college football might sound crazy at first.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide insist they want to make No. 4 Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray throw the ball.
Early and often. As much as possible.
“If we can keep him in the pocket, we trust our defensive backs to get the job done,” middle linebacker Mack Wilson said. “We trust our rush to get the sack.”
Though this College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl on Saturday will feature the two highest-scoring offenses in the nation, the result could well hinge on Alabama’s significantly tougher defense and a traditional approach.
Stop the run. Force the pass.
Not that the heavily favored Crimson Tide don’t respect Murray, who averages nearly 312 yards through the air. It’s just that the Sooners become more effective when they can move the ball on the ground too.
With all cylinders firing, they can turn the game at Hard Rock Stadium into a shootout, which might be their best chance at an upset.
“If you let a team do what it wants to do, that makes things hard,” Alabama safety Deionte Thompson said. “You want to take something away.”
This has been a slightly unusual season in Tuscaloosa, where a surging offense under quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has grabbed much of the spotlight. The normally suffocating defense, meanwhile, has needed to replace eight players lost to the NFL draft last spring.
Still, redshirt sophomore Quinnen Williams returned to anchor the defensive front and win the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman. Wilson and Anfernee Jennings added veteran leadership at linebacker.
And younger players such as freshman Patrick Surtain II stepped up to fill openings in the secondary.
“I thought early in the season maybe we made a lot of mental errors,” Saban said. “People were a little uncertain … that’s sort of developed in a very positive way throughout the course of the year.”
So the Crimson Tide slipped only a little, finishing at No. 10 in total defense, surrendering 14.8 points and 295 yards a game. They have been especially effective on third downs and in the red zone.
Oklahoma will answer with an offense that features not only Murray and two 1,000-yard receivers in Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb, but also two effective running backs in Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon.
Add the Sooners’ offensive line, recently honored as the best in the game, and Oklahoma has a rushing attack ranked 11th in the nation.
Coach Lincoln Riley calls the ground game “a huge part” of an offense that has averaged 577.9 yards and 49.5 points. Asked about establishing the run against a fast, physical opponent, Sermon suggests it might take both ferocity and some faith.
“We’re just going to have to pound it and pound it,” he said. “And trust in what we do.”
Ultimately, the key to Saturday night lies somewhere between all the points Oklahoma scores each game and the two touchdowns that Alabama normally allows. As Wilson put it: “We need to get them out of their comfort zone.”
If the defensive line can occupy that capable Sooners front, the other linebackers believe they can fill the gaps and stop the run. With Oklahoma facing second- or third-and-long on a consistent basis, the pass rush comes into play.
The Crimson Tide averaged 3.2 sacks this season, which is sixth-best in the nation. The linemen will have to stay disciplined, mindful of the run.
When Murray escapes pressure, he has the quickness to get outside in a hurry and the moves to scramble downfield. His elusiveness translated into 892 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
Even though Murray leads the nation in pass efficiency, Alabama wants the ball in his hands.
With a spot in the championship game Jan. 7 at stake, the defense would rather have him trying to make plays from behind the line of scrimmage.
“Make him make decisions on throwing the ball or checking his counts, checking his reads, whatever,” Williams said. “Making them one-dimensional is huge.”
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