“We had three false starts in the first half that put us behind the chains,” Mullen said. “We had three dropped passes, we missed two field goals, we dropped a punt snap. All the little things we talked about.”
Little things maybe. But all loomed awfully large in total, particularly contrasted with what the #4-ranked Crimson Tide (9-1, 6-1 SEC) did well. Yes, LB Cameron Lawrence said, Mississippi State (5-5, 1-5 SEC) played hard and at some points productively enough to defeat a lesser foe.
“But against a team like Alabama you have to play flawless,” Lawrence said. “If you make any kind of mistake, teams like that are going to take advantage. At times we weren’t flawless.”
The Crimson Tide wasn’t flawless either. They did have the game’s only turnover. Their third-down conversions were far below par. And placekicking remains a sore point. Yet Alabama could afford to make mistakes, even give away scoring opportunities, and still come out comfortably ahead on the scoreboard. In fact, the margin there wasn’t nearly so lopsided as the stat sheet.
There, Alabama dominated yardage 386 to 131; averaged 6.8 yards each snap; and owned possession time by a 11-minute margin. Only an intense effort from the Bulldog defense kept this one in contention as late as the third quarter, when the Tide turned a 10-0 margin into a late runaway. Up to then things were developing almost as Mullen had expected.
“We knew it wouldn’t be a shootout with these guys,” Mullen said. “So we tried to play the field position game. We won sometimes, we lost sometimes. I think we held them without giving up a lot of big plays, we did a couple near the end.”
Alabama’s big-ending plays were provided, of course, by their tailback tandem. Trent Richardson punched it over on a two-yard blast at 13:39 of the final quarter for a 17-0 lead that all-but-guaranteed victory. For good measure it was Eddie Lacy completing a clock-grinding, eleven-snap drive at 1:18 with a 32-yard burst against a tiring Dog defense.
That was Lacy’s second touchdown of the evening, as he had accounted for the game’s first points with a two-yard vault of the line five minutes into the second quarter. In some ways Lacy out-shone his Heisman candidate cohort, getting 96 yards and the two scores on just 11 carries; a 8.7 average. Richardson did break the century again with 127 yards, but needed 32 rushes to do it. Still it was his pounding away at various Bulldog lineups that gradually wore everyone down.
“They’re really good backs and it’s a pretty physical thing,” DT Josh Boyd said. “It’s like OK, we stopped them, we have to stop them again. We tried to go as hard as we can but we came up short.”
Of course State expected this sort of ground assault. Compounding the challenge was a typically efficient outing for quarterback A.J. McCarron, as he was 14-of-24 for 163 yards. No scores, though, and it was his second-quarter pick that could have turned everything around. Mississippi State was frustrated after a 11-play drive ended with PK Derek DePasquale missing his 41-yard field goal try at 2:50.
Instead of trying to run out the clock, Alabama threw two passes. The first went for five yards; the second saw linebacker Lawrence step in front of Michael Williams for an interception at the 35-yard line. McCarron saved a fast score by knocking Lawrence out of bounds at the four-yard line. Given this golden opportunity for a tie, or at least points, the Bulldogs failed.
QB Tyler Russell was long for WR Chad Bumphis in the end zone. TB Vick Ballard was stuffed for a loss. And on third down LT James Carmon, anticipating the blitz from all-everything end Courtney Upshaw, jumped the snap count. For his third time of the half at that. Russell was rushed into another incompletion. Mullen ordered another field goal but this time with kickoff man Brian Egan trying from 29 yards.
“Brian kicks really well in practice, we figured we’d give him an opportunity to see what he could do. He missed his opportunity, too. That’s mental toughness, that’s poor on my part not making sure they’re mentally ready to go make those plays we need.”
It wasn’t only State failing at footwork. Both Alabama placekickers missed first-half field goals, Cade Foster from 49 yards and Jeremy Shelley from 31. Shelley was given a third-quarter chance and made the 24-yarder at 7:32. A 10-0 lead would likely have been enough as the Bulldog offense was thrown back on the defensive all evening. At halftime State had just seven rushing yards, sacks factored in; and that was more than they gained the whole second half as the final, frightening net was a dozen yards. Ballard got 21 positive yards on nine rushes, but most of that was negated by four sacks and other stops behind the line.
“It’s really frustrating,” said Russell, 13-of-25 throwing for 110 yards and State’s lone score on a 12-yard bullet to WR Chris Smith in the fourth quarter. “We kind of shot ourselves in the foot on offense as far as false starts, stuff like that. We had a couple of dropped balls, I took some sacks that I should have got the ball away.”
Russell was taking blame though most often his targets were struggling to separate from leechlike Alabama coverage…which didn’t have to last all that long anyway thanks to constant heat off the edges by Upshaw, linebacker Donta Hightower, et.al. No wonder Bulldog blockers were jumping their own count in anticipation of pressure.
“I just have to be smart and get the ball out quick,” Russell said. “I felt my offensive line gave me enough time to make decisions. Sometimes when I took a sack I should have threw it to a flat or had a guy open and just didn’t make the throw.”
Mullen even went wild-card in the second quarter trying to offset Tide defensive intensity. Down just the touchdown at the time, on a series starting at the MSU 14-yard line State showed a three-lineman look with Russell and/or Dylan Favre in the backfield and everyone else—ineligible receivers included—flanked far to either side. It actually produced the best Bulldog drive of all.
“Yeah, you’re taking a chance,” said Russell. “But we were banking on the defense didn’t know what to do. As you could see we snapped the ball quick, the defense didn’t know how to line up, everybody was just walking around and looking. And it paid off. It’s a weird formation. We practice it every practice, and it works.”
Russell completed all five of his passes in the series, too, driving to the Tide 25 with second down before Chris Relf took over. Whether or not changing quarterbacks changed the momentum Mullen wouldn’t agree. But two more plays netted just a yard and brought DePasquale’s missed field goal.
“We just thought we’d get them off-balance and keep them on their toes and try some different formations to get them a little unsettled,” said Mullen. “And at times it did pretty good.” Just not good enough. Much the same as a mostly-stout effort by the Bulldog defense wasn’t enough without scoring support. The only Bulldog points, coming right after Richardson’s touchdown, were possible because TB LaDarius Perkins returned the kickoff 60 yards to the Alabama 22.
S Charles Mitchell had 13 tackles while Lawrence and CB Corey Broomfield each had a dozen, showing just how hard a night’s work the Dog defense put in. Hightower had 11 stops for Alabama as well, with the game certainly meeting Mullen’s expectations in this area. It was old-school football at Scott Field, body on body. Alabama just had more and better, as to be figured for a top-five team still in the national championship chase.
Yet, Russell thought, “It comes down to if we made a couple of plays here and there the outcome would have been different.” Optimistic perhaps but not entirely untrue either. Mississippi State’s trouble was, almost all those plays were made by the other team.
“Alabama is going to play a very clean game, wait for you to make mistakes,” said Mullen. “And then pounce.”