TUSCALOOSA | Javier Arenas didn’t play in the Crimson Tide’s 20-6 win over South Carolina on Saturday, but the University of Alabama secondary seemed none the worse for his absence.
The senior had a minor rib injury suffered Wednesday, and had trouble warming up. Senior Marquis Johnson started in Arenas’ place.
“We thought he would be able to play in the game, and he went out in pregame warm-up today and said he couldn’t move,” said UA coach Nick Saban, adding that Arenas isn’t likely to miss further time.
It didn’t take long for Alabama’s reconfigured secondary to assert itself.
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On just the second offensive play for South Carolina, safety Mark Barron intercepted a Stephen Garcia pass and returned it 77 yards for a touchdown, opening a 7-0 lead. Barron was nearly tackled several times, but weaved his way through the Gamecocks offense along the home sideline before cutting across the field for the score.
But the primary challenge was Johnson’s, who normally plays as a cornerback only when UA uses extra defensive backs for its nickel and dime defenses. Johnson found himself with a tough assignment in coverage, primarily drawing 6-foot-3 Gamecocks freshman Alshon Jeffery.
South Carolina called no shortage of passes to Jeffery, who entered the game with a team-high four touchdown receptions and a team-best 16.6-yard average per catch.
Most notably on a red zone possession late in the first half, Garcia threw three consecutive lobs to Jeffery in the corner of the UA end zone. All three fell incomplete with Johnson in coverage, including an impressive breakup on second down.
“They went after him. We knew they were going to throw the ball to No. 1,” Saban said. “We played off, and we actually even doubled him in the end. But Marquis did a really good job of playing the ball in the air and getting the ball out. Those fades aren’t all that easy to play when the guy is 6-4 you’re playing against.”
Johnson had another breakup on a deeper fade to Jeffery with :16 remaining before the half, helping UA force a field goal for a 13-6 halftime lead. And with the game finally in hand, South Carolina tried to beat Johnson a final time on a lob to Jeffery in the closing seconds, only for Johnson to swat the ball away once again.
“I knew they were going to come at me maybe three or four times,” Johnson said. “… (but) they did it three plays in a row twice.”
Garcia finished just 20 of 46 for the game, as Alabama’s defense maintained a season-long completion percentage by opponents below 50 percent. Johnson finished with six pass breakups, a single-game high for an Alabama player this season.
Kareem Jackson and Johnson were each called for pass interference on the same South Carolina drive late in the first quarter. Johnson was beaten on a deep pass by Garcia and interfered while making up ground on the receiver. A few plays later, Garcia went after Johnson again on a deep ball, but Johnson broke up the pass and nearly came up with an interception.
It was the first time Arenas hasn’t started a game since 2007, a streak of 20 consecutive games. The senior had started every game this season at left corner, making \31 tackles, three sacks and an interception. His absence not only created a void at cornerback, but also at nickelback when Alabama uses an extra defensive back in passing situations. Senior reserve Tyrone King saw action at nicke lback, and recorded seven tackles with 1.5 sacks.
“No. 20 (King) did a really good job out there today,” Saban said. “And it’s a message for every player on our team. Sometimes we have a hard time getting the backup players to focus and get prepared and get ready because they don’t think they’re going to play.”
Sophomore Julio Jones replaced Arenas on punt returns and freshman Trent Richardson joined Terry Grant in replacing Arenas on kickoff returns. Jones was effective, springing a 33-yard return to the Alabama 44 late in the third quarter.