A few thoughts from the initial aftermath of the Tide's 31-3 win over Mississippi State:
Largely the same story goes for Mark Ingram. His raw stat line of 19 carries for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns looks great, but he earned it the hard way last night. The big 70-yard touchdown run inflates everything, but when you factor that out he had 18 carries for 79 yards (only 4.3 yards per carry). He played very well, as is usually the case, but the stat line doesn't really do his performance justice. This was far from an easy romp for him, and far from it he had to fight like hell to get everything that he did.
And not surprisingly, the same thing goes for the passing game. We had three big plays in the passing game, but aside from that we had 15 passing attempts net only 57 yards (3.8 yards per attempt). Again, the general theme of the night offensively was that we were basically either getting huge plays, or MSU was shutting us down. No real in-between to be found.
The touchdown pass to Darius Hanks was a blown coverage by Mississippi State. We had two receivers to the left of the formation -- Hanks and Julio Jones -- and they blitzed a cornerback from that side. That left two defenders matched up against our two wide receivers, and for some reason the Mississippi State safety just kind of lingered out there in no-man's land and didn't really cover anyone. That left Hanks wide open, and a good throw and catch resulted in a touchdown.
- From the outset, you really could not ask for anything more than we did against Mississippi State last night. Considering that we control our own destiny, all we really needed to do was find a way to win, stay healthy, and if we could win in a route then that was all lagniappe. And, sure enough, we found a way to do all three of those things against the Bullies. Again, you really couldn't ask for anything more.
- Credit Mississippi State for showing up ready to play with an intense crowd. It was the biggest crowd MSU has ever had in Starkvegas, and it was a very good atmosphere from the outset. Moreover, MSU came out firing on all cylinders and gave us some legitimate troubles early. We obviously took control as the game moved on, but it certainly wasn't from a lack of effort on their part.
- Defensively, we had a really slow start to this game, and for whatever reason MSU gave us a lot of trouble. On their first two possessions, Mississippi State had 85 yards on only 11 total plays and had a few legitimate big plays to boot. I still don't know exactly what happened, but they gave us a lot of problems early and we were fortunate that they ultimately shot themselves in the foot on both occasions. Fortunately, though, after Mark Barron's interception, the defense simply became dominating. After that, MSU had four possessions the rest of the way in the first half, all of which resulted in three and outs (twelve plays combined for a net of four yards).
- Speaking of Mississippi State shooting themselves in the foot, that was something they consistently did all night and it was to our great benefit. They had a touchdown on the first play of the game with a decent throw, they stopped themselves on the fourth down try on the first possession, and the interception was a terrible throw by Lee. And that was just in the first six minutes of the game. From there, it really didn't get any better. Bumphis stepped out on a would-be kick return for a touchdown, they missed a chip shot field goal, and had a busted coverage that led to an easy touchdown for 'Bama. All in all, we played pretty well for the most part, but MSU did a lot to help our effort.
- Offensively it was really a boom-or-bust night. Overall things look very good -- 31 points, 440+ yards of total offense, and 7.7 yards per play -- but those numbers are inflated by a lot of big plays. We had five really big plays in this game that combined to generate at least 21 points and about 230 yards of total offense. Outside of those five big plays, we really had very little success offensively... around 53 snaps offensively for about 200 yards (fewer than four yards per snap). We were basically either hitting huge plays or getting shut down.
Hat tip to Trent Richardson for good pass protection on that play. He came across from the other side of the formation and did a good job picking up the blitzing defensive back, and that allowed this play to develop. Without that, this play likely ends in a sack.
The touchdown pass to Julio Jones was a blown coverage, too, but it honestly wouldn't have mattered one way or the other. Even without the blown coverage, Julio would have been manned up on a safety and McElroy delivered an absolute strike. The blown coverage made it easier, of course, but in reality this would have been a touchdown either way.
Both touchdown passes came on a variation of the same play, and in both cases Mississippi State blew it. It was a post / corner route combo in both situations, and they couldn't cover it either time.
Marquis Maze had another good night, and we targeted him more often than any other receiver, something that is becoming a bit of a trend. His long catch and run was an absolutely incredible play, and it alone gave us three points. Even with Julio, he may very well be our best playmaker on the outside now.
Offensively, I really don't get why we aren't throwing the football down the field more often. We only threw the football beyond 15 yards from the line of scrimmage a grand total of two times all of last night -- both of which came on busted coverages -- and that really had a very big effect on us offensively. Mississippi State compressed the hell out of everything, and that was really the big reason that we struggled to move the ball outside of those big plays. I just don't get it at all, really. It's one thing to not be able to throw the football vertically, but to not even try to throw it vertically? That I don't understand.
One of the biggest positives for the offense was that we had a complete lack of negative plays. We didn't commit a single offensive penalty, did not turn the football over, and did not give up a single sack. Any time you can do that, particularly against a team with a struggling offense, you move a lot closer to victory.
Defensively, Anthony Dixon had a fair amount of success, but as a unit we did what we really needed to do. Any time you face a team with very few weapons offensively, all you really need to do is relatively limit what little weapons that they have, and we did that with Dixon. He had a decent amount of success, as expected, but again we did what we needed to do.
Something to keep in mind, we spent a lot of time in nickel package defending the Mississippi State version of the spread option. Keep that in mind when we face Florida.
Marquis Johnson played a fine game last night and made several big plays. Interestingly enough, though, MSU kept going after him time and time again, something we should all keep our eyes on. It is clear that opposing offensive coordinators generally consider him the weakest link we have at corner, and they try to go at him accordingly. That means that he will have to step up and get the job done in key situations, and that is exactly what he did against MSU. It's really just shows you what kind of a defense we have when a player of this caliber is the nickel back.
Kareem Jackson... I don't think MSU threw a single pass in his direction all night long. I think that speaks volumes about his level of play.
Justin Woodall had a rough night, and I hate to say it but he has struggled in recent weeks. We're going to need him to play better football against Auburn and Florida.
Mark Barron, on the other hand, is becoming an absolute standout at safety. He gets better and better each week, and his amazing athleticism is showcasing itself even more as he gets more and more comfortable with his role. He's already one of the best safeties in the conference, and at this point the sky is the limit for him.
Kick coverage... what kick coverage? We effectively gave up the equivalent of two touchdowns on kick coverage breakdowns, yet MSU shot itself in the foot to the point that they didn't get a single point out of either one of them. Again, MSU was its own worst enemy for most of the night. As for us, well, we'll never beat Florida giving up yards like that, and they've got a much better returner than anyone the Bulldogs put on the field last night.
P.J. Fitzgerald did a nice job punting last night. He netted over 40 yards per punt, had no touchbacks, and downed two inside the twenty yard line.
Another 10-0 start for the Crimson Tide, it's 17th in school history. If that doesn't tell you all you need to know about our tradition, nothing will. It's incredibly hard to win football games in this conference, and to reel off 15 straight wins in regular season conference play really is an incredible feat.
All in all, it was a good night for the Tide. As I mentioned from the outset, all we really need to do until we get to Atlanta is to win and stay healthy, and we did that against Mississippi State. Tennessee-Chattanooga won't seriously challenge us -- the only thing that can get us there is injuries -- and that really leaves only Auburn left. I do think that Coach Saban is right... our best football is still out there, and we're going to have to play up to that level if we are indeed going to knock off Florida in Atlanta. For now, though, it's all a matter of positioning, and we are doing the things we need to do in order to put ourselves in the position we want to be in come the first week of December.
Final thought... Again, it's hard to win football games in this league, very hard. And any time you can start off 10-0 and go on the road in conference play and spank someone 31-3 in a game that their entire program had marked on their calender, that's just a great night. Again, it's very hard to win in this league, and it's even harder to do what we're doing. We basically wandered the wilderness for eleven seasons from 1997-2007, so just be glad that we are back where we want to be. Enjoy the spoils of success while they last.