Yes, it was a W, and that's what counts. It was the 14th straight W and the 27th in the last 28th games, numbers that underscore the fact that Bama holds the belt and will get the benefit of the doubt in any last-minute BCS voter scrambles. Ws with no Ls will get this team to Pasadena, style points be damned.
And really, there was nothing in this game to make you revise your ideas of Alabama as a powerhouse. The Tide won by 13 on the road, moved the ball much better than its opponent, and won the punting and field position game by a country mile.
Nevertheless, that's two straight games with very slow starts, especially from the offense, and the Tide has had other slow starts in big games over the last couple of years. It's a concern, as Bama has only one more tune-up game to get that out of its system before beginning the championship portion of the season.
Obviously, a slow start was not the only problem here. Alabama came into this game tied for the lead nationally with only 7 turnovers given up, but handed State the ball 4 times, a number that could've been higher as a couple more of AJ McCarron's passes were pickable. If Tyler Russell hadn't been "injured" in the 4th quarter - and really, I hate to imply a phantom injury, but I will because that's not the first time, nor the second, that I've seen cause to question the competitive nature of the Bulldogs' senior quarterback - this thing could've gone down to the wire. And then there were the 4 times State got in the Bama red zone and didn't score, including once when they had 2nd and half a yard to go from inside the 2 - not that the Tide defense played an onlooker role while State was failing to score all on its own, but still, you wanta keep them from getting there in the first place. And then there was the fact that State's best quarterback didn't even play. Put 'em all together, and while this was kind of ugly, it could've been uglier.
Credit to the Tide D for rising up in the red zone, and really, the defense had a very nice day statistically even though State got there too many times. Yes, the Bama defensive backs gave up some completions, but that's hard to stop with modern offensive schemes well-executed, and Russell hung in there against the pressure and threw accurately while he was in.
I've heard some celebrating because Bama got a poorly-played game out of its system. I don't buy that; poor play is more likely to beget poor play than it is to lead to good play. The Tide is fortunate enough to have a tune-up game before the stretch run. Here's to rendering UT Chattanooga a grease spot by the end of the 1st quarter.
And hey, weren't y'all happy to see a bunch of country folk and corporate types spouting cliches for 15 minutes instead of the beginning of the game?
To the positions.
Obviously this was not AJ's finest hour, and surely the Heisman talk will end. It was never what I would call legitimate, as the Heisman is supposed to be for the best player in the country and McCarron is pretty obviously not the best player on his own team. Alabama does have a guy who should be a legitimate Heisman front-runner, so may I heartily suggest that Bama fans support him, not the senior quarterback whose season probably doesn't quite stand up to his junior campaign.
Mississippi St. blitzed freely, something I've been surprised not to see more of this year, and as a result got a bit more pressure than McCarron has been accustomed to seeing. He did not react well to it, especially early, as he rushed some throws in the first half even when he didn't need to, and threw to covered guys when he could've held the ball a little more. The Tide's first drive ended when AJ threw it away before the pressure got to him, although in fairness the Tide for some reason only sent one guy out on that play, DeAndrew White, who didn't seem about to break free. The first pick also came on a play where AJ chucked it to a blanketed receiver when he didn't really have to but loose.
Later, McCarron apparently just couldn't stand the thought of eating the ball when OJ Howard was so wide open, but he was so off balance that he threw an off-target blooper he would have been ashamed of when he was 10 years old. 10-year-old AJ wouldn't have been bragging about his pitiful attempt at a body block tackle at the end of that play, either - good thing #17 was there to clean up, or that would've been a TD the other way. Another second quarter pass should've been a pick six but the Bulldog DB dropped it. McCarron also missed fairly badly the two times he tried to throw on the run.
It wasn't all bad, though, not by any means, and I certainly saw nothing that would support the rumors that McCarron was injured or ill. He probably did his best running of the season, and his arm strength was fine; the deep ball to Kenny Bell early in the 4th was tipped away on an excellent leaping play by a State DB, but it was laid in perfectly to the back of the end zone. McCarron made a great play on the TD pass to Vogler late in the first half, dodging a streaking blitzer, quickly re-setting, and throwing a strong and accurate pass across field. The TD pass to Norwood was laid out perfectly, as well, and other than the ugly attempt to Howard that was picked, virtually every pass AJ made after State cut the score to 10-7 in the 3rd quarter was on target. But Bama needs consistent excellence from #10, not occasional.
24 carries for 160 yards: T.J. Yeldon's best game, right? Umm, not really. Take away 2 run-straight-and-fast-‘til-you-get-tackled runs, and it's 22 for 85, less than 4 yards per carry. With a fumble. The 9 yards of lost yardage was probably Yeldon's highest total of the year, representing nearly 15% of the lost yardage of his Bama career.
Yeldon's worst play may not have been his fumble. On the first play of Bama's 2nd drive, which started at the Tide 8, Yeldon got the ball on a beautifully blocked sweep left, with that entire side of the field sealed off, including the State safety who was locked down good by Cooper. But for some reason, Yeldon hesitated, stutter-stepped to the right, and before he could really get going to the left was nailed from the backside for a five-yard loss by a guy who had beaten Arie Kouandjio to the middle. This play was blocked even better than #4's later 50-yard run: all credit to Yeldon for running flat out to burst through a couple of non-gigantic holes on that one, but the earlier one also looked like a big gainer.
Later in the first quarter, Yeldon dropped an accurately thrown pass on 3rd down, undoubtedly because he started running for the sticks a little too soon. It wasn't a straight drop, either, it was dangerously bobbled up in the air and into the hands of a State player, who dropped it.
Multiple angles of Yeldon's fumble were shown but no hit from the State player was ever visible, although there had to've been some kind of hit for the ball to pop out backwards as it did. What was visible, though, was that Yeldon had the ball in his left hand and initiated contact himself with the right shoulder instead of trying to also put his right hand on the ball before contact. Obviously, that didn't work out.
Another thing that's obvious is that Yeldon did plenty that was right in this game as well, especially when the Bulldogs' line grew fatigued late in the game. He hit his holes fast, brought the power, was shifty in the 2nd level, and workhorsed the Dogs' line out of gas.
Yeldon also made an excellent early blitz pickup, and Drake did the same later on, possibly the two best blitz pickups by a Bama back all year. The trend line on BPUs by Tide running backs this year is very clear and very favorable, as it not only isn't a serious problem any more, it may be a strength.
One might be inclined to forgive Drake's fumble since he took a strong yank on the ball from a State DL just when he didn't expect it - except for the backstory. The backstory is that Drake has already exhibited a serious fumbling problem, and strong yank or not, 1 more fumble on only 4 carries looks bad, really bad.
Kenyan took it really hard, looking despondent on the bench for some time afterward. On the one hand, you're happy he correctly realizes what he has to work on, but on the other hand, he let his head get out of the game. Even if you subscribe to the get-back-on-the-horse theory of putting right back in a guy's hands after he fumbled, you think twice when it's clear from a guy's face he hasn't gotten over it.
Sometimes you just have to have a poor short-term memory. Kenyan doesn't have to worry; somebody is gonna remind him of the fumble later, so he should feel free to forget it and focus on the rest of the football game.
The game is over now, and only the coaches can say where Drake really stands, but the fumble problems are frustrating, because the guy sure can run. I don't think Yeldon would've made it through the hole that Drake got through for 21 on his 4th-quarter carry, because it wasn't there very long.
By the way, we do a lot of hyperventilating about fumbles around here, but Bama's fumble "problem" really ain't that terrible. Even after losing 2 more yesterday, the 6 fumbles lost on the season is tied for 34th in the nation. Every team has lost at least 2, and in fact the Tide's total of 9 fumbles on the season is quite low after 10 games.
Nobody had a standout day, although Norwood certainly had a standout catch on the 3rd-quarter TD pass from McCarron.
DeAndrew White had a big 3rd-down drop early, but made a couple more catches later and had a nice downfield block on Yeldon's 25-yard run in the 3rd quarter.
Amari Cooper led the team with 4 catches for 45 yards, but was never open downfield that I saw. I'm hoping he hasn't reinjured his foot, or whatever it was that was bothering him.
Christion Jones made a very nice hustle play on Bama's initial possession of the game to get to the sidelines and record a first down after catching a swing pass on a 3rd-and-9 play. He also made a gutty catch across the middle on a 3rd and 9 play in the 3rd quarter when State had cut Bama's lead to 3 and it was needed. But Jones gets part credit for the first interception, as he tipped the ball up into the air to be picked, seemingly intentionally (but surely not).
Brian Vogler made probably the best catch and move of his career for the important TD just before halftime, giving me in the process another opportunity to soapbox about lunges across the goalline. This one was close to the borderline, but it was overall a good idea, mainly because even though he had just taken a hit, Vogler had a clear lane to get the ball across the goalline with no defender to interfere. He already had the first down on the play, and normally that would strongly suggest not lunging, but in this case there were only a few seconds left on the clock, so what down it was didn't matter as much as it usually would.
Vogler let a pass rusher escape from him to pressure McCarron, and Howard should've been called for holding on another pass block, but both guys came up big on run blocks. Howard is by no means the blocking liability some thought he would be pre-season. He puts as much effort into blocking as he puts into toting the rock, and was the only guy who made crucial blocks on all four of Bama's longest runs. Vogler got a key double block on Yeldon's 50-yard sprint.
Pass blocking remained superb. The OL finally gave up a sack, but it wasn't exactly ugly, as AJ had some time before the lineman finally came free. The sack was actually a bit of a fluke, as Kelly and Steen double-teamed the rusher but Kelly caught him in just the perfect way to push him to the side, clear of Steen's block, and suddenly into the clear and with a little momentum. He was on McCarron too quickly after that for AJ to have a real chance to get rid of it.
It took the Tide a while to get the run game untracked, as has been somewhat of a pattern, but eventually Bama racked up 196 yards on a 5.9 average. It wasn't as consistent as it might've been, though - take away the 3 biggest runs, and it's 30 carries for 100 yards, a 3.3 average.
The Tide had more lost yardage rushing than any game since Virginia Tech. I've already described how a guy got past Ari Kouandjio to nail Yeldon in the backfield after Yeldon unaccountably hesitated, but the other two lost-yardage plays both came on delayed run blitzes where State linebackers waited until the Tide OL was engaged to come sprinting by the blockers.
Shepherd was called for holding, but he was the guy paving the way for Yeldon on the successful 4th and 1 run in the 1st quarter, and he had key blocks on the 3 big runs that went to the right, as did Steen. Kelly was involved in 2.
Cyrus Kouandjio made every block I saw him have a shot at, and although he barely got a piece of the blitzing cornerback who almost disrupted the TD strike to Vogler, it was just enough to allow AJ to dodge.
Overall, it was another fine performance for the OL, which bears very little blame for the relatively low offensive output.
Once again, Bama's run D played at a very high level, holding State to 53 yards on 29 carries, an anemic 1.8 per, and with a long gain of only 8. The line got good pressure, too, as Russell only got to camp out maybe once or twice.
The "quarterback hurry" stat is the most incomprehensible stat there is, wildly inconsistent in how it's kept. The stats tell us that State got 7 quarterback hurries and Alabama got 2: say what? McCarron had more time than Russell did, throughout the game, and I counted at least five times when Bama rushed Russell leading to an incompletion: two by Stinson and one each by Pagan, Devall and Hubbard. The stats say Hubbard 1, Stinson 1, zero for the rest of Alabama. Hubbard was also credited with his 2nd sack of the season, and Robinson with his 5th.
Pagan has been much more active coming at the quarterback the last three games, which is nice to see, and led the linemen with 4 tackles. However, he also got hit with a facemask penalty.
Yes, we have a legit Heisman candidate. What's that I hear? You say it has to be a skill player?
I don't think so. What I think is that the voters - who really aren't all that deep into what's going on in the games, you know what I mean? - would love to give a long-overdue defensive Heisman, they just don't know enough about the guys to intelligently pick one to give it to. N'Damakong Suh came from nowhere late in 2009 to finish a close 3rd; Honey Badger was probably leading in '11 before he got suspended for possessing something, whatever the heck it was; T'eo was 2nd last year; Clowney was the leading pre-season candidate this year, and it took him half a year of very little accomplishment to finally fall out of the top 5 lists.
All that's a way of saying that we should forget the Heisman talk for McCarron and make sure those voters know about C.J. Mosley. If we really get behind our guy, maybe he can make a late push like Suh did - maybe even a little bit better. And really, there's no question at all that he's Alabama's best player and he's the one that deserves the hype.
Mosley was all over the place Saturday, not just making 8 tackles, but making hard tackles, putting pressure on the quarterback, breaking up passes, and causing a fumble. Yeah, he got called for a fairly flagrant face mask, but otherwise, he was a constant denying presence in the middle of the field. Mosley was particularly impressive tracking a wideout across the end zone to break up a crossing pattern that would've been a TD otherwise.
There was a stretch in the 3rd quarter when C.J. got a bit chippy and did too much yakking, and even a little pushing, after the whistle. I wouldn't condone extracurriculars, especially from on-the-field leaders, and if a late push had drawn a flag it could've been disastrous, but there's no arguing that #32 was especially disruptive while he was hot under the collar. A lot of those guys who wore the maroon jerseys and played on the offensive side of the ball have bruises to remember him by, you can be sure of that.
Trey Depriest continued his streak of good play. He was second on the squad with 6 tackles, a couple of ‘em positively #32-ish, and had a pass breakup to boot.
Hubbard had a couple of good pass rushes, but his sack was his only tackle, and he was called offside on a crucial 2nd and 3 play from the Bama 4, negating a lost-yardage running play. State didn't score on that position, but #42 can hardly take credit for that.
It seemed like Tyler Russell was picking our defensive backfield apart all day, but when you look at State's passing stats - 15 for 29 for 144 yards, with one pick - those are really pretty good defensive stats.
We did have one guy that got lit up, though: Jarrick Williams. Williams gave up at least five completions, and on at least three of them he was not particularly close to his man. He also committed a terrible mistake on Clinton-Dix's interception, as he plowed into an opposing player's back right on the goal line as Clinton-Dix ran by with the ball. The goal line is a part of the end zone, and if that one had been called correctly, that would've been a safety, 17-9, and State gets the ball right back. (Blocking in the back was called on the play, although the refs didn't give a number.) Williams did make one nice defensive denial on a 3rd-down crossing pattern, but even with that one, you have to note that it was very close to pass interference.
It was striking to see how much better Geno Smith did than Williams in pass coverage. Twice Smith stopped State drives with tight coverage on 3rd-down passes, and only gave up one short completion.
State didn't go after Clinton-Dix much, but I didn't see them get a completion out of it. They did get a pick out of it, though. I didn't notice them going after Belue at all - they must not've seen the LSU film.
Cyrus Jones gave up a couple of completions, and would've given up a late touchdown if his man hadn't dropped the ball, but was never beaten badly. He had a nice denial on a 3rd-down throw, was active in run defense, and busted a screen in the backfield for a loss.
After a brief timeout for the LSU game, the special teams were back to exhibiting a high level of excellence.
Cade Foster is Mr. Automatic on the short field goals, now 11-12 on the season with only one just-missed 46-yarder between him and perfection. Cade also kicked off four times, and it was an odd distribution: two deep touchbacks, one kick to the 6, and one to the 17. State never made it to the 25 and the two non-touchbacks.
The opening kickoff of the 2nd half was a high, short kick to the sideline. It was a perfect kick, creating huge problems for the State returner, who couldn't get to the ball before it bounced - or before Christion Jones wiped the floor with him. It was a beautiful, old-school bingo hit - but in 2013 it is targeting, and it's rather miraculous that Christion got to play the rest of the game. The hit was brutal, helmet to face mask, high, and leaning forward against a defenseless player. The Tide was extremely lucky #22 was around later to make that crucial 3rd-down reception I referred to above.
Kevin Norwood would've gotten a piece of one State punt if he had been coached a little more poorly. He did it the right way, aiming his dive slightly to the side of the punter instead of straight at him. That will cost you a block from time to time, but it will save you more roughing-the-punter penalties; this time, unhappily, #83 missed it by a hair.
I could wear out a thesaurus coming up with adjectives for Bama's punting game, which could well have been the difference in the game, so let me just go with the banal unreal and describe it kick-by-kick.
1st punt: booming 55-yarder. I don't know if the returner saw Landon Collins coming straight at him like a meth'd-up cheetah or what, but for whatever reason he was a little too nervous to actually catch the ball. It bounced straight off his chest, hit Collins' high-speed helmet and shot off it like a cannonball. The returner dove on the ball 16 yards further back. Net 71(!).
2nd punt: 63-yarder, casually batted out of bounds at the 2 by DeAndrew White. Net 63.
3rd punt: 41-yarder, touchback. Net 41. Fire the punter!
4th punt: 61-yarder, rolled dead at the 3. Net 61.
That's right, folks. I've seen a couple of folks point out that Mandell averaged 55 and had 2 downed inside the 20, but really, it's significantly better than that. The net averaged 59! Let me say that again at the appropriate volume now: THE NET AVERAGED 59!!!!!!!!! Yeah, it's perfectly accurate to say that two punts were downed inside the 20, but you could also point out that two punts were downed inside the 3. And while the announcers were constantly dogging the State punt returner for not getting to the ball, there's a reason for that: Mandell wasn't just kicking ‘em long, he was kicking ‘em away from the returner.
Punting, and punt coverage, doesn't get much better than that.