OXFORD, Miss. _ You have to wonder which of the following the University of Alabama football team heard the most this past week:
The defense wasn't the same after losing sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower to a season-ending knee injury;
Ole Miss' defensive line was as good as any team in college football, with more size and depth than maybe the rest of the Southeastern Conference's Western Division combined;
That the Rebels were the best team the No. 3 Crimson Tide was going to face in the regular season, and was ranked higher in some preseason polls.
Yeah, so much for all of that.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of the effort and toughness," Coach Nick Saban said Saturday evening after the Crimson Tide pulled out a commanding 22-3 victory at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
"That's about as fine a defensive performance in the first half I've been around for a while."
Some of the supporting numbers were overwhelming, beginning with Alabama tallying more turnovers, five, than No. 20 Ole Miss had points
The Rebels (3-2, 1-2 SEC) failed to convert a single third-down opportunity (0-for-9), reached the red zone only twice and didn't have a time-of-possession edge in any quarter.
"This is the fastest defense if you went from one to eleven," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said about Alabama. "From corners to safeties to linebackers to defensive linemen, this is the best I've seen."
In the second quarter alone the Rebels had three three-and-outs, with an interception and a blocked punt, to head into halftime with one first down, 19 totals yards on 22 plays, and a time of possession disadvantage of 21:03 to 8:57.
Quarterback Jevan Snead had just two completions, Dexter McCluster was a non-factor, and what would have been Shay Hodge's biggest catch was stolen away by senior cornerback Javier Arenas for his first interception of the season.
They should have considered it a minor miracle that the score was only 16-0.
"We threw a couple of different things at him," junior linebacker Rolando McClain said about attacking Snead. "If we did the same thing as last year he would have picked us apart."
"We hit the guy just about every time in the first half," Saban said.
Snead eventually completed 11 of 34 passes for 140 yards to go with the four pickoffs, but his best chance for a touchdown was nullified by junior cornerback Kareem Jackson's interception at the Alabama 5 and returned 79 yards early in the fourth quarter.
"I was playing the slant the whole time and that's what they ran," Jackson said.
Senior safety Justin Woodall and McClain had the other pickoffs, giving Alabama nine turnovers the last two games after just four in September, while senior Cory Reamer forced a fumble that he recovered on a punt return and also blocked a punt.
"This is a tough preparation," Saban said about Ole Miss. "We work on these guys in spring practice, we work on these guys during fall camp. They have Wildcat, they have No. 22 playing quarterback with the four wideouts, so the multiples of things you have to defend are amazing.
"To get that kind of execution really speaks volumes to how the guys prepared for this game."
About the only thing that was disappointing for Alabama was the way it struggled offensively in the red zone, having to settle for five field goals by senior Leigh Tiffin, one short of the Alabama single-game record. It was also inside the 20 it had its lone turnover, a fumble by freshman running back Trent Richardson.
"You can't get four times into the red zone and not put it in the end zone," sophomore running back Mark Ingram said. "It's unacceptable."
Ingram finished with 172 rushing yards on 28 carries (6.1 average), and scored the lone touchdown of the game, taking a quick-toss through the left side when on fourth-and-1 at the 36 Ole Miss was expecting a dive the other direction.
"I think they were a little bit confused by the unbalanced (line), and the fact that we went fast on them," junior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "We got up to the line and snapped it, didn't give them a chance to sort it out. I think that's a big reason why it sprung as well as it did.
"It was a great call."
Only this victory, which put Alabama (6-0, 3-0) firmly in the driver's seat in arguably the toughest division in college football, was clearly due to the defense.
Call it anything from a smothering to dominating performance. Alabama was simply hungrier.
"Me, Preston Dial and Colin Peek already said we're taking the starting eleven out on defense to dinner, so they can look forward to that," McElroy said.
"Definitely not Chuck's (Fish). Maybe Checkers or something like that."