No. 1 Crimson Tide's turf is The Red Zone
COLUMBIA -- In the course of a football game, there are undoubtedly going to be three offensive plays that do not work out. That is a given.
But it's more glaring when they come on three consecutive plays. And it's unbelievably noticeable when the play called is the same all three times.
That, as you might recall, happened in the second quarter of South Carolina's 20-6 loss at Alabama last season. On first, second and third downs from the Alabama 5-yard line, the Gamecocks tried a jump-ball throw to Alshon Jeffery in the far right corner of the end zone.
Either the throw was a little off or Jeffery wasn't physical enough on all three plays, and USC settled for a 22-yard field goal.
"I wanted them all to work," said receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., who was involved in the play-calling a year ago.
Field goals and not touchdowns. That's symphonic to a defensive coordinator's ears.
Evidenced by South Carolina's six points in that game a year ago -- one that was close in the fourth quarter -- and what No. 1 Alabama has done this year, red-zone defense is of utmost importance to the nation's best team.
The Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 SEC) has allowed opponents to get inside the 20-yard line 14 times so far in five games. The other team has scored eight of those 14 times (57 percent), which is the third-best red-zone D in the country. But the Tide has only allowed a touchdown two times. That's 14.3 percent -- easily the best in the country.
The closer a team gets to the goal line, the better Alabama's defense seems to get. If you're going to get in, you've got a better chance from the 33 than the 3, it sometimes appears. The Tide's physical front is just that tough.
Early in the teams' game last week, Florida play-caller Steve Addazio tried two runs with little, speedy receiver Trey Burton in the wildcat from the Alabama 3. They went nowhere.
Taking a bit of a chance on fourth down, Burton tried a Tim Tebow-esque jump pass. It was poorly executed, but, before the play, Alabama's coaches were screaming from the sideline that it was on the way.
The Tide mixes exceptional personnel and coaching to get results near the end zone.
So much that, like last season with Jeffery and the jump balls, opposing offenses are almost forced to strange and strained measures to try and get in the end zone. South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said after the game that, with the running game faltering, that was the only way the Gamecocks thought they could score a touchdown.
That could be a slightly different story in 2010, because of freshman back Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore seems to have a knack for staying on his feet and getting yards when they don't appear to be there.
Lattimore has six rushing touchdowns in four games, the same number USC's leader in rushing scores, Brian Maddox, had in 2009.
Know what Lattimore's longest TD run is? Seven yards. That was his first one, against Southern Miss. Touchdown runs of 3, 2, 2, 4 and 1 have followed.
Perhaps just having Lattimore will give Jeffery more of a chance for those jump-ball catches. Last season, USC was trying to pick on senior Marquise Johnson, who is now in the NFL. At times Saturday, Jeffery will be covered by a freshman, DeMarcus Milliner.
Jeffery is 6-4, 233 pounds. Milliner, still relatively big for a first-year corner, is 6-1 and 182 pounds.
Alabama isn't the only team with red-zone mojo.
South Carolina is actually third in the country, having allowed just four touchdowns in 16 red-zone trips for opponents in four games.
As successful as Auburn was, gaining 492 total yards, even it had a fourth-and-goal from the 1 turn into a missed field goal attempt.
"We probably spend as much time practicing in the red zone as anywhere I've ever been," Gamecocks defensive head coach Ellis Johnson said. "I think our players are comfortable when they get down there. They feel confident."
A year ago, Mark Ingram carved up the Gamecocks for a career-best 246 yards. Ingram had 178 yards without getting into the end zone, until he led a self-reliant 68-yard drive that ended in a 4-yard score.
Interestingly enough, Johnson said Thursday that was the first offensive touchdown his defenses had given up to Alabama in 16 quarters, going back to his days at Mississippi State.
As expected, Johnson said junior linebacker Shaq Wilson will miss the rest of the season with an injured hamstring. Wilson attempted to return at Auburn two weeks ago, making a couple of fumble recoveries, but he didn't appear physically healthy. By the next day, the injury was against flaring.
Without knowing Wilson would be back to 100 percent in the near future, Johnson said it made the most sense to pursue a medical redshirt, which Wilson is expected to receive.
Wilson led the team in tackles in 2009 after taking over for injured middle linebacker Rodney Paulk.