"We expected to win the game, to be honest with you," Coach Dan Mullen said. "I guarantee in that locker room there wasn't one person that didn't expect to win that game, expect to stop them and expect to score. But we didn't do that enough."
Instead Alabama stayed on-track for another BCS title shot. The Tide left Scott Field 10-0, 7-0 SEC, and assured of at least a share of their fifth West title in six years. Mississippi State fell to 4-6, 1-5 SEC, with no remaining regular-season margin if they hope to play post-season.
Looking that far ahead was difficult for the Dogs. The immediate past was too present on MSU minds. "Like Coach always said, the game is a game of inches," said CB Taveze Calhoun. "You have to be able to make the big play in the big moments. They did and we didn't."
Alabama did make plays, though not nearly at their accustomed pace. The 20 points was their lowest offensive output since October 2011, and 383 yards was 70 below the season average. More surprisingly, a Tide team with just seven turnovers this year lost the ball four times; twice on passes intercepted by Calhoun each time, and both of their fumbles.
It added up to opportunity for the home team…which couldn't take sufficient advantage.
"Again, give them credit," Mullen said. "They controlled the clock, they moved the ball and made plays at critical moments."
Naturally it was quarterback A.J. McCarron making, or setting up, the important plays. It wasn't the most efficient evening for the senior; 18-of-32 passing for 187 yards, a couple of touchdowns against the same number of picks. But typically his impact couldn't be measured on a stat sheet. Even a 4-of-12 game on third-down conversions was deceiving because with McCarron in charge Alabama made those that mattered most.
"We didn't get enough pressure, we got him out of the pocket some," Mullen said. "But he's a great quarterback. He's a winner, he made a lot of throws at key moments. We got the momentum, he would do a good job stopping that."
McCarron's life was made easier by brutal running from T.J. Yeldon, who toted on 24 of the 33 official carries for 160 yards. Yeldon didn't score; he did repeatedly change the field, most obviously before halftime when the Bulldogs were hoping to stay within 3-0 at the break. A single 50-yard burst by Yeldon led to what proved the margin of victory.
"The guy's a workhorse, he's very hard to tackle," said DT Jones. "We had a lot of missed tackles tonight and they execute off of them. You don't wrap-up on those guys, they'll break you."
Mississippi State came in short-handed again offensively, with QB Dak Prescott not dressing due to a late-game ‘burner' suffered at Texas A&M. This left the load to QB Tyler Russell, and the senior performed as a veteran should. He was 15-of-24 for 144 yards and his only interception was on a well-thrown but better-covered strike into the end zone in the third quarter.
But it was on that picked pass Russell took a hit on the return play that left him with a hurting shoulder. He returned for another series and took himself out afterwards, leaving true freshman QB Damian Williams the only scholarship triggerman available. Williams was 0-of-5 though with two obvious drops.
The passing game was more important than even usual this season as Alabama put near-complete clamps on Bulldog rushers. Hitting the middle was frustrating; going outside useless against tide defensive speed and range as State managed just 53 net rushing yards on 29 tries. The lone touchdown did come on a running play, by Russell; but was officially credited to RT Charles Siddoway for falling on a fumble into the end zone.
It seemed Alabama would dictate terms from the very first series as McCarron was 4-of-5 with a first down on each catch, and a ten-yard scramble to negate Jones' sack. The lone incompletion did force a 33-yard field goal, good, as Alabama ate up seven minutes and one second getting in range.
And that was all first-quarter scoring, as the Bulldog defense began getting good push and making tackles. And had LB Christian Holmes looked up on one third-down throw he might have made it a pick-six. Still State forced three-straight Tide punts, and at 3:51 Calhoun got his first pick off McCarron.
But it came after State's best chance at first-half points, on a ten-play drive built around catches of 20 and 22 yards by TE Malcolm Johnson. Two Tide penalties put the Dogs on the two-yard line with second down, before they drew a flag for ineligible receiver on an incompletion. Interestingly, Alabama took the penalty for another third down at the seven rather than 4th-and-goal at the two. It worked out, as WR Jameon Lewis got tangled up with Geno Smith in the end zone for an incompletion.
What State would have done from the two was speculative; what they did from the seven was miss a 23-yard field goal try by Evan Sobiesk from the left hashmark, off to the right.
With 2:49 left to halftime Alabama got one more turn and made it count as Yeldon broke the 50-yarder down to State's 28. "They gapped the run on our right and hit a play on us," said Calhoun. With third down on the 18, McCarron rolled around and found tight end Brian Volger at the five. He spun off a defender and dove the goal line at 0:20 for the 10-0 lead. It was the sixth time this season State had given up points on a last-series before the half.
Another Tide turnover, with LB Matt Wells stripping Yeldon and LB Beniquez Brown recovering, was used well. Russell threw to Johnson for 15, to WR De'Runnya Wilson for 14 more, and on first-and-goal at the nine called his own number. He got to the two where instead of going down he struggled with a host of bodies. The ball came free and rolled into the end zone where Siddoway somehow emerged with possession at 10:11.
But the momentum change didn't stick. Completions of 27 and 13 yards put Alabama in fast-forward, and with second down on the Bulldog eleven Kevin Norwood was looking for McCarron's perfect fade throw to the left pylon. Turned-around, CB Will Redmond only saw the falling-back catch and touchdown at 5:46 for the 17-7 lead. Before the quarter ended Russell's throw for Lewis on a post-pattern was intercepted by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Alabama drove far enough for the 35-yard field goal at 12:15 of the final quarter. Russell tried another series and absorbed his only sack of the game. Alabama didn't score anything more as Calhoun stepped in front of the intended target at the goal line, and returned 53 yards to the Tide 38. But Williams was unable to make anything happen, the only first down on his watch coming on an Alabama facemasking of the quarterback. That series stopped at the Tide 22 after two good Williams passes were dropped by Lewis and Wilson.
Even when State got the ball back immediately on a fumble, at the 24, the series went nowhere. And the last chance began on their own three after a 61-yard punt, ending on an incompletion.
"We did a lot of good things," said Mullen. "It's making plays. That's a great football team we played, I think we had a couple of opportunities to beat them right there. But if you're going to beat that team you've got to make the plays."
Or not make bad plays, as the coach ticked off a quick list. Dropped passes, the long Yeldon run before halftime, and of course the "chip shot field goal" as Mullen called it, though this season no placekick has been automatic. Punting came in for critique as P Baker Swedenburg offset big hits of 53 and 51 yards with 38 and 32 yarders. "Their punter was booming them, and we weren't," Mullen said. "Every little detail like that is critical."
S Kendrick Market totaled a team-best ten tackles with seven more for Wells. The Dog defense had seven stops for losses in fact and seven hurries, both topping the Tide totals. But Alabama made up for it with better timing on their big plays, defense and offense alike.
"We had a good gameplan coming in," Calhoun said. "The coaches did a great job, with a lot of disguises. We just played with relentless effort the entire night."
Just not quite enough effort nor execution to knock off number-one. "You're not going to get a lot of opportunities when you play them," Mullen said. "So you have to take advantage of every single opportunity you get, and we didn't do that tonight."