BIRMINGHAM –What was overshadowed in Alabama’s 40-17 victory against USF on Saturday at Legion Field was an impressive showing by the Bulls defense. It set the tone early in the game and allowed the Bulls to hold a lead for virtually the entire first half.
USF coach Jim Leavitt said earlier in the week that it would be difficult to prepare for the Alabama offense, specifically because the team had a new coach and the Bulls didn’t have any film to work with.
Although the Bulls were forced to guess what the Crimson Tide would show on offense, the defensive unit quickly adjusted to what it saw and shut down the Alabama offense in the early going, something senior free safety J.R. Reed said was important.
“It was very important to get the crowd out of the game,” said Reed, who finished third on the team with 11 tackles. “They were very quiet in the first half.”
In the first half, the USF defense didn’t give the 70,000-plus Alabama faithful much to cheer about.
USF held Alabama to eight yards on 11 plays and just two first downs in the first quarter, including twice forcing a punt after three plays.
“We matched up perfectly with them,” said senior linebacker Maurice Jones, who led the Bulls with a career-high 16 tackles and recorded the team’s only sack in the game. “We knew we could play with them. As long as we kept to the game plan, and stayed disciplined and avoided fatigue, we were all right.”
Alabama put together a drive a the end of the first quarter, but it resulted in a missed 44-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter to keep the game tied at 7.
On Alabama’s following two possessions, USF held the Crimson Tide to 30 total yards, while forcing a turnover that led to an eventual touchdown.
“We we’re very confident,” said Reed, who recovered the fumble and returned it 21 yards to the Alabama 20-yard line.
Throughout the first 28 minutes of the game, the USF defense allowed 34 total yards, forced a turnover, allowed just one of six third down conversions and yielded zero points.
But when Alabama drove 80 yards for a touchdown in the five plays toward the end of the first half, set up by Zach Fletcher’s 49-yard reception with Bruce Gipson all over him, everything just seemed to fall apart.
“It was an icebreaker for our offense and it got us into a rhythm,” Alabama coach Mike Shula said. “Guys were frustrated and we were close on a few things, but (we) just couldn’t get into a rhythm.”
“We planned on coming out in the second half and playing just as good as we did in the first half,” Reed said. “I just know they came back in the second half and they just put it to us.”
Alabama put together an 11-play, 72-yard drive that led to a field goal to start the third quarter, giving the Crimson Tide its first lead of the game.
Alabama followed with touchdown drives of 97 and 80 yards, both taking more than 10 plays and five minutes off the clock.
The long drives forced USF’s defense to remain on the field, resulting in players fatigued by playing in 89-degree weather. That eventually opened Alabama’s rushing attack, which had been silent in the first half.
The bottom line: “I think what you saw in the story of it really was in the trenches,” Leavitt said. “Their offensive line and our defensive line. They really just wore us down.
“It was something I was hoping wouldn’t happen, but when we got a little bit tired, I think they just got their horses in there and just leaned on us a little bit.”
Alabama running back Shaud Williams, who rushed for just 21 yards on eight carries in the first half, rushed for 77 yards on 20 carries and a pair of touchdowns it the second half. In all, the Crimson Tide rushed for 143 yards in the second half, while adding 129 more yards through the air.
“We just didn’t step up,” Reed said. “Nobody stepped up and made a play.
“There’s four quarters in the game, and we only played two.”