By Michael Whitlow | @couldbelikemike
Sports Capital Journalism Program
TAMPA, Fla. — In last season’s College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T the Alabama defense was torched for 478 total yards and four touchdown passes by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Alabama still won the game because that’s what Alabama does.
Clemson gained 550 yards in less than 29 minutes of possession last January. A former walk-on-turned-scholarship star in wide receiver Hunter Renfrow beat All-American safety Minkah Fitzpatrick for two of Watson’s four touchdowns.
Fitzpatrick, a key entity of the Alabama defense even before do-it-all defensive back Eddie Jackson fractured his leg this season, said he told his mother after the win last season that it didn’t even feel like the Tide won the game because of the defense’s underwhelming performance.
But, Alabama still won the game.
The emphasis for the Crimson Tide defense at this year’s Media Day two days before the title game rematch against Watson and the Tigers was simple: do the job, but do it better this time.
“You just gotta work harder,” Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster said from his podium at Media Day on Saturday. “They’re coming with a chip on their shoulder. They’re coming with vengeance, so of course, we’re gonna have to work harder.”
Alabama completed 14-1 and won a national championship – the school’s 16th and the fourth since 2009 – but now there’s an emphasis on getting better and working harder because that’s what Alabama does.
“I think a lot of our players last year came out of this game, even though we won, not feeling like we played really well on defense,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said during his hour with the media. “You know, hopefully that’s a bit of a motivating factor for our guys to try to do a better job this year.”
Jonathan Allen, senior defensive lineman who won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award and Ted Hendricks Award, shared Saban’s thinking in terms of performing better in the rematch against the Tigers.
“We were happy that we won, but still, at the end of the day, we were pretty upset with how we performed,” Allen said on Saturday.
Allen, who registered 62 total tackles and 9.5 sacks this season for the Crimson Tide, was rather calm and cool in front of the microphones, but confident about his team’s chances.
“I feel we’re better equipped this year to handle that [Watson], and we’re excited for the opportunity.”
Watson ran for 74 yards against the Tide last meeting on 20 carries. The most rushing yards that Allen and the Alabama defense gave up to one player this season was 62 to Texas A&M’s Keith Ford in a game where Allen scooped up a fumble and raced 30 yards on the final play of the third quarter to score and seemingly ice the game.
Despite the threat of Watson and the high-powered Tigers once again, Allen remained confident and locked into this year’s task.
“Not really worried about last year, to be honest,” Allen said. “We’re focused on this year. We didn’t play as good as we wanted to last year, but two different teams, two different coaching staffs. We’re focused on what we have to do this year.”
Alabama allowed just 244.4 yards per game, tops in the nation. Alabama’s average of 62.4 rushing yards allowed was 34.8 yards less than the nearest school (Western Kentucky). Only two other teams allowed an average of fewer than 100.
Alabama has allowed more than 20 points twice, and both of those performances came before Oct. 9. Alabama has given up just 65 points in its last eight games, six against ranked opponents, including the 24-7 semifinal win over Pac-12 champion Washington.
“We really don’t worry about it,” Allen said regarding the hype around the Alabama defensive unit. “We’re still writing our legacy. We’re gonna be remembered by how we finish, so we’re just focused on finishing strong.”
When asked how he wanted this defense to be remembered, Allen was short, sweet and to the point.
“To be the best ever,” Allen said.