STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 12: Linebacker Dont'a Hightower #30 of the Alabama Crimson Tide hits quarterback Tyler Russell #17 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs as he throws a pass in the third quarter on November 12, 2011 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)
It took about a half to grease the wheels, but the University of Alabama offense found its stride in the second half of a 24-7 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night. Halftime adjustments and improved execution allowed the Crimson Tide to break away in a game that went to the half at only 7-0 in favor of UA. "We changed formations a little bit. They really loaded the box quite a bit. Most of the good passing plays we made were on first down," UA coach Nick Saban said. "I think when a team plays you that way, you have to be willing to try to make those plays. We were fortunate that we were able to make a couple of them, and they turned out to be big plays for us."
It was a typical no-frills victory for Alabama (9-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference), which has won nine of its last 11 against Mississippi State, including four straight. The Crimson Tide defense has held 11 straight opponents to 14 points or less. Alabama struggled again with field goals, missing two of them in the first half after missing four in last week's 9-6 loss to No. 1 LSU. But Richardson and Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns, made up for those miscues. "We had a slow start," Lacy said. "They had a lot of energy, but energy only lasts so long."
Maybe beyond Richardson and Marquis Maze, and perhaps Lacy, the offense lacks the kind of big-play punch that is needed to provide more consistency. The lack of consistency has been hidden behind the SEC stat sheet, on which Alabama leads the league (heading into the MSU game) in scoring offense and total offense, is second in rushing offense, third in passing offense and first in third-down conversions. The offense obviously isn't inept. But if the Crimson Tide gets that rematch it wants with LSU, the offense needs more consistency.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked about Alabama's ability to affect Mississippi State's quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyler Russell. "We knew that would be important," Saban said. "We knew that when (Russell) was in the game, we had all the respect in the world for his ability to pass the ball. When (Relf) was in, we had to defend the run. The did run some options that hurt us at times. That is a difficult offense to defend."
"I'm really pleased and proud of how our players responded in this game," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "There was a challenge presented to them after a very difficult circumstance a week ago to respond the right way, do the right thing. ...We didn't play a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination."
"It's really frustrating," MSU quarterback Tyler Russell said. "We were so close but had things like false starts and sacks that shouldn't have been taken. We can't make mistakes like that." Alabama's Trent Richardson rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries, slowly grinding away at the Mississippi State defense. The Tide were coming off a 9-6 loss to No. 1 LSU. "After a loss like last week, a win is the only medicine," Richardson said.
Richardson didn't have his typical Heisman-caliber performance, finding little running room against Mississippi State's defense, especially in the first half. But he got stronger as the game progressed, with an explosive 25-yard run early in the fourth quarter to Mississippi State's 4. Two plays later, he plowed through the line for a 2-yard touchdown that gave the Tide an insurmountable 17-0 lead. He had 88 of his 127 rushing yards in the second half.
Mullen said Mississippi State made way too many mistakes to hang with the Tide. "Three of four dropped passes, we missed two field goals, we dropped a punt snap," Mullen said. "We do all the little things that you can't do. Alabama is going to play a very clean game, and they're going to wait for you to make mistakes."
The No. 4 Crimson Tide contained Mississippi State's offense for most of the evening, taking a safe and solid, if unspectacular, 24-7 victory over the Bulldogs in front of a crowd of over 57,000, the second-largest crowd in Mississippi State history. Eddie Lacy scored two rushing touchdowns and Trent Richardson added another score and gained 127 yards while carrying the ball 32 times, the heaviest single-night workload of his career. The Crimson Tide defense, meanwhile, limited MSU to just 131 total yards, the Bulldogs' lowest output of the Dan Mullen era. The Tide's physical strategy wore down the Bulldogs, as Alabama rushed for 139 yards in the fourth quarter.
The Crimson Tide defense is virtually impregnable at this point. The debate about where this defense compares to the great units of the modern era, 1979 or 1992, 2005 or 2009, still has to wait until the end of the year before it is settled. However, this year's unit is compiling some compelling evidence to support its case. Consider the raw numbers against MSU. No, the Bulldogs are not a great offense, but UA held them to just 131 yards - 50 yards worse than their previous low output under Dan Mullen. When the game was still a game, in the first half, MSU returned an interception to the Alabama 4-yard line and got no points. That is defense. But offense? Well, there was offense after a fashion, although it appeared like something from a different era of football when Trent Richardson was accumulating 3.97 yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Eddie Lacy, who had 96 yards and two touchdowns, summed it up accurately, saying, "I just do what I have to do and run the ball."
Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower: Alabama’s defense was once again suffocating in the 24-7 win over Mississippi State, and Hightower led the way with a team-high 11 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. He finished with 1.5 sacks and also broke up a pass. It was the 11th straight game in which Alabama had held its opponent to 14 or fewer points.