In what was a de facto elimination game for Alabama in the SEC and playoff races, the Tide started strong and managed to survive a furious second half rally to defeat the best Mississippi State squad in program history, 25-20. From the stands, this one had a championship feel to it as the crisp weather, packed house that was about as loud as you'll ever hear, and intensity of the players on the field combined to create an atmosphere that epitomized what we love about big-time SEC football in November. It certainly wasn't always pretty and some flaws remain, but it's tough to be too critical about a win in a game of that magnitude.
Offensively, the Tide sort of muddled through this one and truth be told never got much of anything going with any consistency. Two big plays in the second quarter, passes to Jalston Fowler and Amari Cooper, netted 85 of the Tide's 335 total yards on the afternoon. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin called a balanced attack in this one with 31 passes and 32 rushes, though at least one fan was ready to come down to the sideline and strangle him after the second three-and out featuring three incomplete passes in the third quarter. The Tide managed to get a somewhat gimpy TJ Yeldon going to a degree, averaging 4.5 yards on his 16 carries, certainly not Heisman caliber numbers but good enough in this type of game and considering the size of the MSU front. Cooper had another strong game despite constant double coverage from the Bulldog secondary, finishing with a team-high eight catches for 88 yards including the aforementioned big play, a 50-yarder that put the ball on the two yard line setting up a Derrick Henry TD plunge that provided a tense moment as Henry was initially ruled to have fumbled the football. The officials went to the booth and got the call corrected, however. Speaking of Henry, for the second consecutive week he struggled to get going as holes were perhaps a bit tighter than he would prefer. Going forward he will need to adapt against better competition.
The passing game was barely adequate in this one but no more than that, netting 211 yards and 6.8 yards per pass while managing a poor 36% third down conversion rate. Absent the two long plays, Sims and his receivers managed a paltry 126 yards on 29 attempts against a rather average secondary that has been the weakest unit for the Bulldogs for the bulk of the season. Once again, there wasn't any one glaring problem with the passing game, just general dysfunction as Sims missed a few and the receivers were inconsistent catching the ball. Kiffin's opening play was a bit of a head-scratcher from my seat as he put Cooper in the tailback position, where he'd be extremely visible to everyone, then threw him the football in the backfield for a short loss. The Mississippi State corners were committed to tackling and did a fine job of it all night to stymie the Tide's signature short passing attack. Indeed, it was the deep shot that worked in this one. Ardarius Stewart saw his first extended game action, grabbing a couple of catches and providing an instant impact by drawing a first quarter pass interference that helped set up a safety. DeAndrew White battled through what appeared to be a minor hamstring tweak to grab 4/40, though his most important catch of the night came on a Mississippi state onside kick in the final seconds. OJ Howard was again a non-factor and continues to drop the ball. He is definitely a concern at this point.
Defensively it was a tale of two halves for the Tide as they almost completely bottled up an excellent Bulldog attack in the first half before yielding four long drives in the second. The run defense once again looked the part of the best in the nation, holding star RB Josh Robinson to less than half of his season average at only 3.1 per carry, and Dak Prescott needed 22 carries to muster only 92 yards. The Tide was clearly committed to stopping the run and forcing Prescott to beat them through the air. He almost did, managing 290 yards through the air and moving the ball almost at will in the second half. Fortunately for the Tide, Prescott made some mistakes and the secondary made him pay with three big INTs including two massive second half picks in the red zone that essentially bailed out the Tide and allowed them to survive. Cyrus Jones played like a man in this one, battling their best receiver for much of the night while giving away a ton in size. His interception in the end zone was huge. allowing the Tide to survive a third-quarter flurry and take a two touchdown lead into the fourth. He and Eddie Jackson are rounding into solid starters at the CB position. Safeties Nick Perry and Landon Collins each had a huge interception but also allowed TE Malcolm Johnson to get deep down the seam a couple times for big gainers.
The impact special teams had on the outcome of this one can't be overstated. The Tide simply dominated in this area, a welcome sight for a fanbase that has been trained to cringe at the very thought of these units playing a significant role. It's not a stretch to suggest that JK Scott was the MVP of this game as he outperformed the opposing punters by 11 yards per punt at 45.6 per while pinning the Bulldogs inside their own 20 five times in seven total punts. Another simply spectacular performance from a surefire All-American. Kickoff coverage was stellar in this one, consistently forcing Mississippi State to start in poor field position. Kicker Adam Griffith did miss another rather easy field goal attempt, so it appears that we aren't quite out of the woods in that department, but there is no question that the special teams as a whole were a huge contributor in this win.
For the second consecutive week, Blake Sims displayed an "it" factor in stepping up and putting the team on his back when it mattered the most, engineering a championship-quality drive in the fourth quarter to put the Tide up by two scores and seize back control of the game. On this drive, he converted three huge third downs on a check-down to TJ Yeldon and two scrambles. On the two scrambles Blake showed why I believe he may be the most agile QB in the nation, displaying great feet, vision, and speed. So often QBs who are gifted athletically are criticized for giving up on the play too quickly and taking off. For my money, Blake is still guilty of the opposite. There were a few occasions during the game where it appeared that Blake had a great chance at getting a first down with the scramble, but he seemed hesitant to do it for some reason. While the young man has certainly improved as a passer, there is no question that his legs are his greatest physical asset and he needs to use them more. I firmly believe that this game could have turned into a blowout early had Blake converted a couple of those third downs with his feet. It will be interesting to see if he runs it a bit more after this one. Dan Mullen also helped the cause, morphing into some combination of Houston Nutt and Les Miles from a clock management perspective late in the game. He will undoubtedly have to answer some questions there.
Bottom line, the Tide played in the biggest college football game of the season to date against the top-ranked team in the country and survived. At this point the committee will have the team entrenched in playoff position, possibly even in the top two. The Tide will feast on a yummy cupcake this weekend before facing an Auburn team that has seemingly jumped the track down the stretch, which of course means that the Iron Bowl will be their whole season per usual. All goals are in sight, now it's time to see if the team can do what it takes to make them a reality.