Tide, Gamecocks set for red zone smackdown

Kirby Smart saw it coming. No. 1 Alabama’s defensive coordinator

jumped up and down making a throwing motion with his right arm,

warning his players to watch for a jump pass.

Sure enough, that’s what Florida tried on a fourth-down goal

line play last weekend, and Crimson Tide linebacker Nico Johnson

intercepted it in the end zone. Threat averted.

Smart’s Alabama defense isn’t dominating stat sheets like last

year’s group, but it is awfully formidable when opponents get deep

into the red zone.

”Alabama’s been pretty good about the other team getting down

on about the three- or four-inch line and not scoring,” South

Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.

Then again, the 19th-ranked Gamecocks have been hard to stop

after penetrating the 20-yard line. That could make for some

interesting red zone collisions in Saturday’s game at South

Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium, a boiled-down version of the

SEC’s best against the best.

No conference team has been better at cashing in on red zone

trips than South Carolina; Spurrier’s offense has scored on all but

one of 16 trips, including 13 touchdowns.

A powerful runner like Marcus Lattimore and big receivers like

Alshon Jeffery and Tori Gurley certainly don’t hurt. Neither does

the mobility of quarterback Stephen Garcia.

Getting to the red zone against Alabama’s defense hasn’t been a

huge problem.

The end zone? That’s much harder to reach.

The Tide has allowed only eight scores and two touchdowns on 14

tries. Perhaps the most impressive number: five forced turnovers in

that condensed area of the field, including a fumble recovery

against the Gators and that play when Trey Burton pulled up at the

line to throw.

Schemes, preparation and coaches adept at sniffing out potential

trickery all help, of course. Safety Robert Lester thinks attitude

is important, too.

”It’s the mentality,” said Lester, who had an end zone

interception against Arkansas. ”The defense never wants an

opponent to score. Keep them off the board as much as possible. If

the offense doesn’t score a point and the defense doesn’t allow a

point, it’s a tie game. No one can win. That’s the mentality we’re

going in with.”

Florida drove past the Tide’s 20 four times and came away with

one field goal in the 31-6 Alabama win. ”And they were inside the

1 twice,” noted Spurrier.

In fact, he sees some advantages in having a little extra space

in front of the goal line.

”Sometimes, against teams like this, you don’t want to get to

the 1-yard-line,” Spurrier said. ”You’d rather get to the 7 or 8

or something like that. Sometimes it’s actually easier to score

from that distance.”

Either way, South Carolina has the 6-foot-4, 233-pound Jeffery

or the 6-5, 230-pound Gurley for jump balls. Then there’s the

218-pound Lattimore, who has six touchdown runs, the longest 7

yards.

Alabama’s success as the opposing offense nears the goal line is

a big reason why the Tide leads the nation in scoring defense.

Coach Nick Saban stresses stopping teams in the red zone, run

defense and not giving up big plays as some of the key elements to

strong defense.

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower simply calls it ”want-to.”

”Our guys have competed very well down there,” Saban said.

”You have to give them credit for the tenacity that they

have.”

He said the most important thing is to force a team to pass in

that situation.

”Most really good teams in the red zone run the ball

effectively,” Saban said. ”If you can force them to throw, it is

a little more difficult to throw it down there. They have more

people in a lot less space and we’ve done a pretty good job of

executing what we do. We practiced a lot and our players have

responded well to it.”

It’s hardly a coincidence that Alabama’s improved play against

the red zone has coincided with the team’s rise. The Tide went from

11th in the SEC two years ago to first in last year’s national

championship season.

That’s where Alabama has stayed so far in 2010.

Spurrier even noted the Tide’s goal line stand on Texas’ opening

drive of the national title game. The Longhorns had first-and-goal

from the 1, and had to settle for a field goal after two rushes and

an incomplete pass on their opening series.

”So just cause you’re down there close doesn’t mean you’re

going to get a touchdown against Alabama,” Spurrier said. ”Those

guys, they’re not going to concede anything to you. To be in the

game, we’ve got to score TDs if we can instead of kicking field

goals from short range.”

AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., contributed

to this report.