A natural goal for Alabama’s defense coming into its 24-3 win over Penn State was to try and confuse Nittany Lions freshman quarterback Robert Bolden. When things were said and done, the Tide achieved success in that area, for several reasons. And that wasn’t the only target the Tide met, either.
“One of our goals is not to allow 13 points or more,” said Alabama sophomore middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who finished the evening with five tackles, pass break-up, and a quarterback hurry. “And turnovers -- that’s one of our keys to success.”
Alabama forced four turnovers on the night: three interceptions, and one fumble recovery. Bolden was directly involved in two of those, both interceptions. He finished 13-for-29 for 144 yards. In three trips to the red zone (defined by coaches as inside the opponent’s 20-yard line), the Lions only managed a field goal, which was obviously kicked to avoid a shutout and instill confidence in Bolden, who can now say he led a scoring drive against the top team in the land, albeit one which came with his team down 24-0.
“We disguised things pretty well (against Bolden), and that helped us come up with turnovers in the red zone,” Hightower said. “Guys stepped up and made plays, guys like Will Lowery and Robert Lester.”
Lowery got his first career pick, and Lester got his hands between the ball and the turf for his second interception is as many weeks.
“Good and bad. What you expect,” said Lions coach Joe Paterno when asked about Bolden’s play, “A tough crowd, and a tough football team. Well played (defense), well coached, and in good position,. That made it tough on him. We didn’t do a good job coaching in getting ready for this one.”
Penn State wide receiver Brett Brackett said Bolden “got stuck in some tough situations, and unfortunately, it didn’t go our way. He has to learn from it.
“We’re definitely beating up on ourselves a little bit, because we had some opportunities we didn’t capitalize on. Whether it was not executing, dropping the ball, not blocking, or fumbling, there were a couple of things we beat ourselves with. We’re definitely disappointed in that aspect.”
All-American Mark Barron got a pick as well, on a trick play. The fumble recovery for Bama was by Lester, on a bizarre play where he scooped the ball, ran 75 yards, and lost it.
“We had a great game plan, but we made a couple of mental errors,” Hightower said.
Sounding like his head coach, Hightower added, “We had to break their will. We had to get the momentum. We got better, but there’s room for improvement. The defense as a whole needs to play with a little more awareness, and look for things like cut blocks (a subject Hightower knows all too well).
“We all have to come into the film room (Monday) and learn from our mistakes.”
Bama’s leading tackler on the night was red shirt freshman Jack linebacker Ed Stinson, who started in place of a hobbling Courtney Upshaw. Stinson made nine stops, five unassisted. Said Hightower, “Ed played great. He did everything we asked of him. He doesn’t try to be too flashy, and he’s very coachable. He’s really done a good job of learning our defense.”
It was easy to tell after the game that Alabama’s players felt a bit more pumped after this win than after the opening night rout of San Jose State.
“It was an honor to play in this game, especially against such a legend like coach Joe Paterno,” said running back Trent Richardson, who powered his way to 144 yards rushing. “It was an honor to see (Paterno) out there on the sidelines. This will be something I remember for a long time.”
Hightower concurred. “Coming here tonight, and playing a great team like Penn State and a great coach like Joe Paterno was great. Bryant-Denny felt electric. It felt great out there tonight. A few times, it was so loud we couldn’t hear our (defensive) calls, but we can work on that.”
Quarterback Greg McElroy added, “It’s a game you come to Alabama to play, and I’m glad we took advantage of it..
“I think it’s a great win, and one that will catapult us into the rest of the season. We divide the season up in segments, and this is the end of the first segment. Now, its really time to start playing some football, so I think we are pleased with what we accomplished tonight, but there’s a lot of room to get better.”
McElroy finished with 229 yards on 16-of-24 passing for two touchdowns. He may have been talking about two sacks by Penn State when he mentioned areas of improvement.
Bama will hit the film room and practice field Monday to begin preparations for its first road game of the year. The Tide (2-0) will face Duke at 2:30 p.m. central time at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham. ABC-TV will carry the contest.