All Coach Dan Mullen could do after the most lopsided loss of his four State seasons was tip the hat to the home team…and remind the Bulldogs what made the defeat so definitive. "You watch them, they're a very talented team that's well-coached, that plays very, very hard," said Mullen, then adding, "It's amazing how the ball bounces to the guys that play hard. So it's a reason they're the number-one team in the country."
Not just a reason, lots of them. Alabama put on a remarkable opening act, scoring on brutally efficient drives of nine, six, and eight plays in the first three possessions. Had this been a title fight the referee would have called it a technical knockout by 13:33 of the second quarter when the lead reached 21-0. The best measure of early Crimson Tide dominance was their first 15 snaps all produced gains with nine of those plays netting seven or more yards.
"They came out ready, they were prepared for us," said Banks. "Whatever we did on defense they had an answer for."
The easy answer was ‘A.J. McCarron'. The quarterback showed why he is the most efficient passer in the league and land, hitting his first seven passes including touchdowns of 57 and nine yards. As Mississippi State had naturally focused first on Tide runners, McCarron's precision passing hit hard. And often.
"That's something they might have kind of caught us off-guard," Lawrence agreed. "Their offense coming into the game was 69% run. Them coming out throwing the ball was kind of a little adjustment for us." McCarron finished 16-of-23 with 208 yards and the two scores, and no turnovers in three quarters of work. One of his replacements, Phillip Ely, threw the other Alabama passing touchdown with his 27-yarder in the fourth period.
Not that the home team ignored their trademark ground game. T.J. Yeldon rushed for 84 yards and one score, pacing the total 179 yards and two touchdowns. Even backups moved the ball well enough for Alabama to tally 414 yards and 6.5 per-play.
Mississippi State couldn't match any of this. LaDarius Perkins arrived with a SEC-best 103 yard rushing average; he left with 38 yards on 15 carries and should have been commended for making that much ground under the circumstances. The junior also saw his seven-game scoring streak snapped, though a more generous spot on his goal-line plunge in the third period might have at least provided pride points. It would not have affected the outcome.
Instead QB Tyler Russell had to try moving State on his arm, throwing a career-high 30 passes. Half were caught by teammates, for 169 yards; one by an opponent and that frustratingly was in the end zone right after Perkins had been ruled short on second down. Russell was sacked just once officially, but took far more punishment from Alabama tacklers arriving as he unloaded.
OG Tobias Smith said Alabama showed nothing defensively that had not been schemed for. "No, they just played with good technique and did exactly what they were told to do. And they waited on us to make mistakes and they pounced on those."
The first mistake might have been giving the home team the football after State won the toss. A 41-yard return signaled this could be a tough night, though the Tide had to work for that first score. Lacy converted 4th-and-short on the MSU 37-yard line; then three double-digit gains followed with Yeldon running it in from the 11. To Mullen though the key was a 3rd-and-8 when McCarron escaped pressure and ran to set up the short fourth down.
Perkins did answer the initial kickoff return with a 33-yard runback of his own, though he was very fortunate his fumble went out of bounds. Completions to Perkins and Sylvester Hemphill got one first down, and on 3rd-and-12 Russell somehow slipped a long throw just over the double-coverage to WR Chris Smith for 31 yards. He wasn't as lucky on third down at the 14-yard line under all-out blitz pressure. Nor was PK Devon Bell as his 31-yard field goal was blocked by Dee Milliner coming clean around right end and TE Marcus Green.
"We had a great response, right down the whole length of the field," Mullen said. Only, "We run a wrong route, we had a guy open and end up two guys in the same spot, the other guy ran a wrong route. Then we just have a complete breakdown at the wing and get a field goal blocked. I think that hurt the momentum for us at that point right there."
Actually there was no more MSU momentum as McCarron struck twice. Receiver Kenny Bell got a step on Banks, adjusted to the en-route throw for a catch and raced the rest of the way for his 57-yard touchdown at 3:27. The Bulldogs lost ground and composure on their next punt, as Dee Arrington was in the fielder's face for one penalty and Mullen's protest drew a second flag. McCarron found freshman star wideout Amari Cooper for a big 25-yard strike, setting up a nine-yard toss to tight end Michael Williams all alone in the end zone.
"They came out starting fast," said Mullen. "And the things we've done in the past (when) we needed to respond, we responded to a point and didn't finish it off tonight."
The Dog defense did respond to give up no more first-half touchdowns, in fact forcing three punts. Alabama had to settle on another drive for a 34-yard field goal and 24-0 halftime lead. But neither did State mount a threat until midway of the third quarter. Russell and Perkins dug the Dogs out from their two-yard line starting point for a real series, with throws of 12, 16, and 28 yards. Russell even spun out of a sack for an improbable 14-yard catch by Smith again.
But having reached the two-yard line more frustration loomed. Russell and Perkins netted a yard, then on third down the quarterback rolled unprotected to his right. As Mullen said, had the throw been higher TE Malcolm Johnson would have been open for the score; instead Russell's throw was intercepted by Dee Mulliner.
Even when the defense held on their side of the field, with Lawrence sacking McCarron, the punt backfired. Or back-bounced into unsuspecting LB Deontae Skinner's back for an official ‘fumble' Alabama grabbed at the 28. Three snaps later Ely saw the blitz coming and dumped to Lacy who had nothing but 27 open yards ahead. One further special teams catastrophe, this time a fumble by WR Jameon Lewis after his 39-yard kickoff return, set up the last Alabama touchdown. Kenyan Drake got it at 8:14 with a three yard dash to the corner.
The lone Bulldog score was provided by the second offense, against their Alabama backup counterparts. Dak Prescott directed it and made two slick throws, most notably his 20-yarder caught by Lewis on 4th-and-17. Prescott found WR Robert Johnson open for the two-yard touchdown at 4:39.
"I feel we played our worst game and Alabama capitalized on all our mistakes," said Lawrence, the game's top tackler with 10 stops. "And they didn't make any mistakes where we could capitalize." Alabama didn't turn the ball over while State, the SEC's leader in turnover margin, lost it three times.
After the week—or more accurately months—of Bulldog build-up to this specific game, a whipping was tough to accept. Mullen blamed himself for not having the team ready, while crediting Alabama for living up to their top-shelf billing. He also wisely limited post-game interviews to the three senior captains, who were already working on a major task: that of not letting the first defeat turn into a second this week when Mississippi State hosts Texas A&M. Because, as Mullen reminded, "There's a lot of football left to be played."
"Our guys are disappointed, I think they expected to win the game. I know nobody else out there probably expected us to win. And our fans, I loved that they believed in us; we didn't just believe, I think our guys expected. So I think they are very, very disappointed. They're going to have to see how they respond to this."