Alabama turned three simple, short plays into unexpectedly huge strikes that offset anything Mississippi State could accomplish. The home Tide team came away 9-2 overall and 5-2 SEC going into their regular season finale two weeks from now. The Bulldogs saw their six-game winning streak rudely snapped, leaving at 7-3, 3-3 SEC with a pair of Western Division dates left to settle MSU’s bowl destination.
But if the Dogs are to earn one of the better mid-tier bowl bids they will have to learn painful lessons from the streak-stopping loss. None of Alabama’s touchdown plays were set up to do much more than move a marker, yet thrice a different Tide playmaker did just that. In a big way.
The biggest Dog damage came in the second period after both teams had settled for field goals in the opening quarter; two for the Tide and one for State. Midway of the second, receiver Marquis Maze turned a five-yard catch into a 45-yard touchdown to shake the MSU defensive confidence. Five minutes later tailback Mark Ingram turned receiver himself on a simple sideline toss that startlingly opened up for a 78-yard touchdown and 20-3 halftime margin.
The killing shot came when wideout Julio Jones reversed roles himself on an end around run and found clear sailing for 56 yards to open the third quarter. From there Alabama could coast home to a third-straight win in the series.
Ingram’s catch-and-run was not just the longest play of the night, it was the longest of the reigning Hesiman holder’s whole college career. In fact the senior had more receiving yards (77 net) than his 53 rushing gains on 18 tries as the Dog defense had him targeted. Meanwhile Jones produced more yards on his single carry than on his three catches for 41 yards.
Quarterback Greg McElroy benefitted either way, using those side-out tosses that became huge gainers to tally 277 yards on 12-of-18 accuracy. He was intercepted once, for just the fourth time this fall.
The Bulldog offense by contrast stuck to plan and at times seemed able to make it work, out-snapping the home team 72 to 59 and converting 9 of 18 third downs. Alabama was just 4-of-12 there, but then consistency wasn’t needed this night. MSU’s Vick Ballard did grind out 80 yards on 19 rushes while LaDarius Perkins picked up 44 on eight attempts himself.
But neither scored; in fact for the first time all fall State failed to produce a rushing touchdown. And quarterback Chris Relf lost almost as many yards as he ran for due to five official sacks. Relf was 8-of-16 for 70 yards and an interception, yielding in the fourth quarter to Tyler Russell. The freshman accounted for MSU’s only touchdown on a 27-yard throw to WR Chad Bumphis in the end zone, but also was picked off.
State won the toss and deferred, giving Alabama first turn with the ball. They used it well working from no-huddle, with five consecutive positive plays moving the chains four times. McElroy completed passes of seven, 11, and 15 yards in the drive that reached State’s 19 yard line. Finally on 3rd-and-2 Ingram was caught for minimal game, so the Tide opted for easy points on a 36-yard field goal by Jeremy Shelley at 11:55.
Starting from their 20 the Bulldogs were able to reach Tide territory. Ballard turned a short throw into a bruising 15-yard gain, then Relf muscled for 11 on two carries and another first down at the Tide 42. But on second down Relf threw for Bumphis, triple-covered inside the ten-yard line, and Robert Lester went up for the easy interception.
Alabama did nothing with this turnover. On second down McElroy was going down in the grasp of DE Pernell McPhee and dumped the ball at a bunch of his linemen’s feet; but the initial flag was picked up as Ingram was supposedly in the area. A third down throw was on target to Darius Hanks and rattled loose by CB Corey Broomfield, so Bumphis fair-caught the punt at Alabama’s 39.
Given good field position, the Bulldogs were able to even the scoreboard as Perkins turned a second-down handoff into 20 yards to the Tide 14. Three rushes left 4th-and-3 so Derek DePasquale knocked the 24-yard field goal through at 5:37.
Maze returned the kickoff out of his end zone to the 28. A false start meant 3rd-and-9, but Maze got open at the 41; then did it on first down for 13 more yards. Mullen demanded review of where the receiver’s feet had hit and lost. Jones came down with a 22-yard gainer, setting up field goal position on 4th-and-12. This time it was Cade Foster hitting from 45 yards out at 0:55 for a 6-3 Alabama lead.
Bumphis only made his 16-yard line on the return, and the second quarter began with 3rd-and-4. Relf escaped the rush and found Arceto Clark for 11, and thought he’d converted the next third down with a rush. State had been in an illegal set though. So after an exchange of two more five-yard fouls, it was 3rd-and-8 and Relf’s throw for the middle was batted at the line. Heath Hutchins’ punt was a 49-yard beauty downed at the 15.
Two Ingram losses later it was 3rd-and-15 with Alabama calling time. State showed blitz, just sent four, and McElroy was too high for his target. The 40-yard punt had the Dogs on Alabama’s 46 but first down produced a holding call and re-spot back at State’s 44. WR Brandon Heavens made up 14 of that on his catch and run before Relf again had a short throw rejected at the line.
And the usually reliable Hutchins shanked his punt for just 17 yards, spotting the Tide on their 25. A 11-yard throw to Hanks got the drive going, and McElroy pulled it down for a scamper to the 50-stripe. On second down he found Maze on the right sideline at the marker…
…but it didn’t end there. Maze spun off what should have been a tackle by Broomfield and had nobody between him and the goal line. The 45-yard touchdown at 7:09 made it a 13-3 lead.
Holding negated a nice Perkins return, pinning State to its 13-yard line. A lot of hard running plays only got one move of chains, though State should have got a free one too as on 3rd-and-3 Alabama had a dozen defenders afield, and the flag was thrown. A hasty timeout negated penalty and Relf hit Heavens for seven yards. Soon though it was punting time, and Maze briefly looked to have run it all the way back. Only a correct, if late, block-in-back foul brought the ball back to the Tide 22.
It didn’t matter. Because on first down Ingram was flanked out for a sideline catch, with blocking. Broomfield was flattened and Ingram was gone for the 78-yard score at 2:17. State rushed six-straight plays out to their 45 before looking at one long shot…which the Tide figured. They sacked Relf to end the half with a 20-3 lead.
State opened the second half on the 20 after touchback. Relf converted one third down with his arm (nine yards to Bumphis) and another with his feet. The third third wasn’t charming though as Relf took a 10-yard sack. Hutchins’ punt was 47 yards but returnable, 22 yards worth back to the Tide 44.
On the first snap Jones took a the end around, had the lane sealed to both sides with S Charles Mitchell only able to get fingers on him. Jones crossed the goal at 10:35.
If the 27-3 deficit weren’t bad enough, rookie WR Michael Carr bobbled the kickoff almost back to the end line and still tried to come out. He got as far as the eight yard line. Three Ballard runs, including a direct snap, netted 16 yards. He was stopped on 3rd-and-short though and State didn’t take the chance. Hutchins punted for a 44-yard fair catch.
McElroy finally made a mistake, as his first down shot down the middle was right into LB Chris White’s hands at the Tide 41 yard line. State gave away five immediately with a delay penalty before running a play; then Clark and Bumphis each bobbled away catchable throws for good gains. Relf had to unload on 3rd-and-15, and Hutchins one-hopped the punt into the end zone. On third down McElroy was run down and stripped by S Zach Smith, only to have the fumble covered by teammate Hanks.
Ballard gave his offense some room to work with on a 18-yard burst to the 49, only to have Relf take a sack on second down and underthrow Bumphis. A 46-yard punt, coverage by S Wade Bonner dropping Maze, and a penalty to boot put Alabama on their five-yard line. Ingram rushes for seven, then 13; before frosh Eddie Lacey hit it hard for 20 more yards on two totes.
Alabama reached the Bulldog 43 before the quarters changed, and only a saving tackle by Mitchell at the one-yard line kept Hanks from getting in the end zone on a 39-yard pass by A.J. McCarron. S Nickoe Whitley sacked the passer for ten yards loss so the Shelley got his side’s final points with a 28-yard field goal at 11:58.
Russell had charge of the ensuing series and was able to direct a complete drive, of ten plays. The series almost stopped on fourth down but TB Robert Elliott found a seam for the first down. FB Pat Hanrahan made a 15-yard gainer off Russell’s out-route throw, and on 3rd-and-10 it was Bumphis getting 12 yards. The big strikes came consecutively; Clark hauled in another sideline throw for 33 yards, then it was Bumphis going up between two defenders in the end zone and coming down with Russell’s perfect strike at 8:08.
But that was all MSU could muster, and getting possession at 4:26 Russell was immediately picked off—Lester again—at the 23. Alabama got down to the goal line before runner Jalston Fowler was stripped by LB Chris Hughes with CB Damein Anderson recovering in the end zone at 0:43.
Maybe the most telling, tactically, stat of the night was how State linebacker White came away with just three tackles. This after the senior had averaged a dozen stops over the last four games. Alabama literally ran, and threw, away from him and LB K.J. Wright (5 tackles) and found the perimeter easier pickings. Tide safety Mark Barron was everywhere with 11 tackles, and Lester of course had the two interceptions.