Dre Kirkpatrick stares down Trey Burton after tackling him during Alabama's 31-6 victory over Florida Saturday. / CW | Jerrod Seaton

Looking at the first half of the Crimson Tide’s game against the Arkansas Razorbacks two weeks ago, one could understand why the University of Alabama’s defense was under serious scrutiny at the beginning of the season. After a half of missed assignments and blown coverage, the Tide’s defense appeared as if it would be the undoing of another undefeated season. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett was on pace to shred the secondary for 500 yards passing and the Razorbacks left the half with a 17-7 lead.

Then something clicked.

“I think it was an awakening,” sophomore safety Robert Lester said. “It made us realize that we can’t go in and just play half football against great teams. We have to show that we’re capable of coming out on the first play and playing great football to the last play.”

From then on, the Tide’s defense has been spectacular. After that first half of football against Arkansas, the Tide defense has only given up nine points, with no touchdowns, in three halves since. Furthermore, the defense proved itself opportunistic, forcing six turnovers in those 90 minutes.

After its terrible first half against Arkansas, the Tide defense wanted to prove it was the real deal. It did that and more against the Florida Gators as the defense harassed quarterbacks John Brantley and Trey Burton. What’s more, the Tide defense held the Gator’s offense to less than 300 hundred total yards of offense while forcing three interceptions and a fumble recovery. Despite only getting one sack in the game, the defense hounded Brantley all night, keeping him constantly pressured. The defense even held its own at the goal line twice. But Alabama’s defense has no false illusions of grandeur. The players know they’re still growing, and that they still have plenty of work left to do.

Head coach Nick Saban noted how well his team competed against Florida.

“You have to be really pleased and proud, watching film, with the intensity they had,” Saban said. “This last game was a real team win.”

Naturally, Saban found areas of improvement, not just for his defense but for his entire team.

“Teams at this time of the year need to be aware of what their weaknesses are,” Saban said. “That’s where you start getting exposed if you don’t correct it. The biggest thing is to continue to challenge yourself and challenge others.”

Indeed, the defense has taken that lesson to heart, as the Tide ranks third in the nation in containing its opponent’s passing efficiency. Lester himself leads the Tide in interceptions with four, which ties for third nationally.

“Before the season started, I had a goal that any ball that I touch, I was gonna make mine, and if there’s a ball in the air, we’re going to go get it,” Lester said. “Our DBs, we’re hungry for interceptions, that’s why we have 11. So, I’m pretty sure if the ball goes deep, our DBs and linebackers are going to come down with it.”

Of course, the Tide’s growth and maturity has been noticed on the other side of the ball as well. Junior running back Mark Ingram noted how Alabama’s defense contributed to the win on a night where the offense struggled, at least statistically.

“They were swarming out there last game,” Ingram said. “They were relentless. They created a lot of turnovers and helped the offense out a whole lot when we weren’t doing too well.”

Despite the obvious maturation of the Tide defense, Saban noted that they still have to keep challenging themselves and compete at a high level more consistently.

“I think our team’s progressing, but each week presents a new challenge,” Saban said. “Are we going to be able to challenge ourselves to continue to compete at a high standard? So far we’ve responded fairly well, but not consistently.

“People need to challenge each other every day. I do think there are more players playing with more confidence. But we need to build off that.”

Of course, things don’t seem as bad as Saban makes them out to be. While Alabama’s defense still isn’t where it wants to be in terms of competitiveness, the Tide leads the nation in scoring defense, only allowing opponents an average of nine points per game. The ground game, despite taking a hit in numbers, is still one of the nation’s best: they rank No. 19 nationally, giving up an average of 102 yards per game. The Tide’s total defense is ranked 20th nationally, only yielding an average of 292 yards a game.

Another huge aspect of the defense is its superb red zone defense. For the year, Alabama’s defense has only allowed 14 trips to the red zone, and they’ve only given up eight scores. This ranks the Tide third in the nation in red zone scoring percentage at 57 percent. Even more astounding is its touchdown percentage allowed in the red zone. On 14 attempts, opponents have only scored a touchdown twice, the nation’s best percentage. Lester noted the toughness of his team when backed up against the wall.

“That’s the mentality,” Lester said. “The defense never wants an opponent to score on us. We want to keep them off the board as much as possible, because if the offense doesn’t score a point, and the defense doesn’t give up a point, then it’s a tie game, and no one can win. That’s the mentality going in.”

The Tide’s newest challenge will take the form of the No. 19 South Carolina Gamecocks, who host the Tide Saturday in Columbia, S.C. Perhaps the biggest test Saturday will come from South Carolina freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, though Saban noted the physicality of the entire Gamecock team.

“We had a tough, physical game with this team last year,” Saban said. “They run the ball well offensively. Steve [Spurrier] always does a good job. Lattimore’s really an outstanding player. This’ll be a very challenging game for us.”

As Alabama’s defense continues to grow in confidence and experience, however, the Tide looks to start dominating its opponents on a whole new level. The defense has already started the process and can only grow from here on out.

“I think they’ve grown up a lot from week one to now,” Ingram said. “They still have lots of room to continue to improve, so it should be a treat to see what they develop into.”