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Mississippi State From The Couch

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It's a familiar story in Nick Saban's Tuscaloosa. The Tide jumps out to a sizable first-half lead, the offense goes into a funk and leaves protecting the lead entirely up to the defense, and the defense brings the win home. Alabama beat the #1 team, all right, but the Tide did not win the second half and did not end the game with momentum. That might mean something, because these two teams may meet again.

Kevin C. Cox

It was a little too familiar, a little bit too redolent of the LSU game Alabama was lucky to win, a performance that looks none too impressive after seeing the Tigers get smacked around by Arkansas yesterday.  Both times Bama took the lead into halftime after a strong second quarter, but then turned in a listless, scoreless third quarter to let the opponents back into the game.  Both times Bama's opponent held the ball for many more plays than the Tide, averaging 85 plays over the two games compared to only 62.4 plays per game for the Tide's previous 8 foes.

All turned out well in both games, as the Tide offense responded positively to 4th-quarter wakeup calls both times.  But the offense's inability to establish control of the football is concerning, and ultimately brought Mississippi State back into this game.  The Tide's defense is fully responsible for this victory, but as deep as the Bama D is - and as scary as it is starting to look - it wasn't deep enough to stay fresh into the 4th quarter after a second consecutive fray with the opponents running over 80 plays.

No, the Bama D line began to visibly give way about midway through the third quarter.  It certainly never became porous, but Dak Prescott started having time to throw and he and Josh Robinson began finding room to run.  In the first half, nearly every time Prescott dropped back a Bama defensive lineman would break through right away.  Those same linemen were contained in the second half.

Certainly, when evaluating the 428 yards Bama gave up, you have to bear in mind that State was playing catchup and, especially late in the game, Bama was giving up the underneath stuff and State was taking it.  You also have to bear in mind that this was, statistically, clearly the best offense Alabama has played, with a physical offensive line and playmakers at every offensive skill position, especially quarterback.  But still, it's a little worrisome that the Tide gave up 280 yards in the 2nd half.

But only a little.  428 yards was 92 under State's average coming in, it represented less than 4.9 a play, and again, State was playing catchup ball the whole second half.  The Tide D picked up three turnovers and a safety, and absolutely gets the lion's share of the credit for a very big win.  While the offense is an off and on affair, the defense is doing nothing but get better.  Fortunately for both units, a rest week fearsome FCS opponent is coming up.

Quarterback

Blake Sims bears very little responsibility for Alabama's listless offensive performance.  He was quite accurate all day, especially in the 10-15 yard range, although all three of the deep balls he attempted were at least a little underthrown.

Blake's mistakes were down in every category from what we chronicled last week against LSU.  Against the Bengals, Sims missed open receivers 6 times, against the Bulldogs 3.  LSU tipped 3 of his passes at the line, State 1.  Sims threw third-down completions well short of the first down with no running room twice last week, once this week, and he may have even thrown a more catchable ball Saturday, as outright drops were down from 4 to 2.

And what was good last week was good again: Sims played his best ball when it counted most.  After State found paydirt on a short-field drive early in the 4th quarter to cut the score to 19-13, Sims put the team on his back in a 76-yard TD march that gave the Tide the two-score lead it would need to hang on.  The Tide faced three straight third-and-long situations on the drive and Sims delivered all three times.

First, on third-and-6, Sims found Yeldon on a checkdown in the middle for an 8-yard-gain and the first, after his primary receivers were covered.  On a 3rd-and-8 on the next series, Sims made a sensational scramble, cutting up the middle, where he gave State linebacker Beniquez a limp leg, cut left and said goodbye on his way to a 10-yard first-down scramble before running out of bounds.  Finally, on a third-and-10 on the next series, Sims sprinted a-tiptoe down the right sideline for first-down yardage, aided by a key block from DeAndrew White; it was like a replay of Greg McElroy against Florida in 2009, except in fast forward.

Sims made a number of big plays, but the beautiful downfield pass to Jalston Fowler for 35 yards sparked the first touchdown drive.  It's worth special mention, as was a particularly athletic scramble and throwaway to avoid a second-quarter sack.

Sims has now thrown 148 straight passes without an interception.  That is the sixth-longest such streak in Crimson Tide history, and with just eight more throws without a pick, he will climb to 3rd behind only Brodie Croyle's 190 straight in 2005 and AJ McCarron's remarkable string of 291 straight throws without a pick over 2011-2012.  As most of you know, Blake was very lucky not to have multiple picks over the first couple of games of that streak, but that hasn't been true the last two games, when he has thrown 79 times without even coming close to being intercepted.

Running Back

We have unfortunately become very familiar over the last two seasons with the way T.J. Yeldon runs when he is not 100%, and I for one have expressed the idea that he is significantly less without his full burst than what he is when healthy.  Right or wrong, T.J. was undoubtedly injured yesterday, undoubtedly lacked his full burst, and undoubtedly ran very well anyway.  He never seemed to be much of a threat to go 80 yards, but he was very much a threat to go 6, 8 or 10 every time he got a smidgen of room.  T.J. picked his holes, burst through them as burstingly as he could burst, and ran with level pads and the ball wrapped up.

It says here that was the best Yeldon has played in a game where he was noticeably slowed by injury.  His 4.5 per carry was easily the best of the 4 guys on either team who had 10 carries or more, and would have been over 5 per but for some tough sledding T.J. ran into while Bama was in clock-running mode with a 2-TD lead late with 5 minutes or so left.

Derrick Henry continued to struggle against a tough run D, picking up 36 yards on 11 carries, an undistinguished 3.3 per (At least it beat Josh Robinsons' 3.1.)  Over the last two weeks, Henry has gained 4 or more yards on only 6 of his 19 carries and is only averaging 3.2 yards per carry.  Henry always fights for yardage and typically falls forward - that extra yard or two he tends to get at the end of a run may well form a significant fraction of his positive yardage over the last two weeks.

While Tyren Jones has looked good in his limited action, it has been too limited to really draw any conclusions about him.  At this point, with him getting zero carries the last two weeks with Yeldon beat up and Henry struggling, it may be time to go into trust-the-coaches-and-shut-up mode and forget about seeing him in significant game action.

Receivers

Amari Cooper has shown no overt signs of injury since the Tennessee game, and maybe that's because he isn't injured.  Maybe it's just other teams' defenses catching on and figuring out how to limit him.  But for whatever reason, #9 has not been the murder weapon the last 2-3/4 games that he was through the first quarter of the UT matchup, and I think it's worthy of note that the Tide mostly went to ArDarius Stewart as its deep threat Saturday.

Cooper did make a sensational catch on the 49-yarder that set up the Tide's second second-quarter touchdown, leaping high to beat two State defenders to the ball and then using pure hand strength and concentration to muscle it into his possession.  He also had a big catch in traffic for a 15-yard gainer on 3rd-and-6 in the third quarter (although the drive led only to a missed field goal).

Stewart beat the Bulldogs deep at least twice, although Sims didn't get him the ball either time.  He also flashed explosiveness turning a short swing pass into a 17-yard gain on that same third-quarter missed-field-goal drive.

DeAndrew White remains the designated possession receiver.  His four receptions netted three first downs and came up a yard short of a fourth.  Christion Jones did not catch a pass and may have lost his spot to the swifter Stewart.

Brian Vogler was back, made one catch and got in a couple of blocks on sweep plays.  OJ Howard had a drop across the middle but he was probably nervous about the shot the DB was lined up to take on him.  That one's partially on Sims; you don't want to set your guys up like that.

Offensive Line

This is the second straight week that the Tide running game has been, frankly, mediocre, averaging 3.9 yards per carry against a team that gives up an average of 3.6.  Just as with the Bama quarterback, though, the Bama line's best run-blocking performance came when it counted, as the Tide rushed 10 times for 66 yards on the crucial 4th-quarter touchdown drive.

The flipside, of course, is that outside the one drive the Tide got a putrid 58 yards on 22 carries in the rest of the game.  This is clearly cause for concern; if there's any room for optimism it lies in a wish and a hope that both the Tide's running backs and line may be healthier in the future.

This offensive line clearly majors in pass protection, though.  Although State averaged 3.5 sacks per contest coming in, they got to Sims only once.  In fact, of the 35 times he dropped back to pass, he had plenty of time to throw approximately 31 times.  Two of those pressures had little or nothing to with the line, as they came from a delayed blitz around the end when Sims was rolling out.

The other two came from Cam Robinson's man, as #74 appeared to have perhaps been feeling the effects of the high ankle sprain he experienced only three weeks ago.  He was also close to entirely responsible for Bama's being stopped on its second possession of the ball game.  On 3rd-and-4 from the State 33, Robinson's man slipped by him into the backfield to stop Yeldon for a 1-yard loss, and then Bama's decision to go for it on 4th-and-5 was balked when Cam started backing up into pass protection before the snap, leading to a punt.

Still, a couple of the Tide's small number of big runs came toward and behind him, one between him and Kouandjio and another around the end after he set a block.  The Tide also ran successfully behind Leon Brown or between Brown and Ryan Kelly, but continues not to have much luck behind Shepherd.  It was hit-and-miss behind Brown as well, as his man was able to peel off his block and make plays at or near the line at least twice.  Brown is usually known for driving his man.

Defensive Line

That the defensive line eventually wore out in no way suggests that it didn't have a great day.  Even worn out, yards up the middle and through the air were not easy to come by, with State mostly taking the underneath offerings the Tide was increasingly giving them as the game went on.

The Bama defensive line dominated the first half, and was the primary reason the Tide took a 19-3 lead into halftime.  Almost every time Prescott went back to a pass, a Bama lineman would beat his blocker early and get in Dak's face.  Although Prescott was only sacked once in the game, early on he had to hurry or improvise on nearly every passing play, and generally was not successful.

State rushed for only 54 yards in the first half on 21 carries, 2.6 yards per carry.  For the game, the Bulldogs had 151 yards and a 3.5 yards per carry average.  Coming in, State was averaging 253.4 yards a game and 5.6 yards per carry.

Jarran Reed had 8 more tackles, again mostly assists, to give him 23 over the two-week period.  Just like last week when LSU kept hitting two or more Bama linemen on nearly every carry, assists far outnumbered solo stops.  Reed, A'Shawn Robinson and Dalvin Tomlinson combined for 3 solo tackles and 19 assists.

Jonathan Allen had three pressures on Prescott, including two hard hits on release, and also said a resounding hello to Dak on a one-yard gain.  I'm sure Mr. Prescott remembers Mr. Allen.

Denzel Devall had two pressures in the first quarter.  D.J. Pettway's 3rd-down pressure on State's first possession caused an incomplete pass and a punt.  Pettway pressured Prescott again in the 2nd quarter, and made a nice bounce-out off a third-quarter block to stop Robinson at the line.

Tomlinson accompanied his seven tackles with the Tide's only sack, a second-quarter coverage sack.  Robinson accompanied his seven tackles with a huge 4th-quarter tipped pass that Landon Collins intercepted, one of the biggest plays of the game.

The development of the Tide's bumper crop of young defensive linemen has reduced Xzavier Dickson's playing time a bit, but he is still using it when he gets it.  #47 had two pressures, including a third-down pressure early in the third quarter that forced Mississippi State to settle for a field goal.

Linebackers

Reggie Ragland had another 10 tackles, and has taken an 11-tackle lead over Landon Collins for the season lead, 79-68.  Nevertheless, it was a relatively quiet game for #19, with no tackles for loss, no pass defenses, and none of the memorable hits he seems to get in most games.  Ragland got stuck covering the tight end across the middle in the 2nd quarter to the tune of a 28-yard gain on 2nd-and-14 to kickstart the drive that led to State's first field goal.

Trey Depriest had nine tackles, including one for the safety when he had a nice reaction and set a good angle after the play was blown up.  He made another nice read and reaction to cut off a 3rd-quarter reverse from 1st-and-10 at the Bama 14, turning it inside where another Tider could clean up the tackle for loss.  But overall, this was a game Trey would as soon forget.

On State's first possession, Depriest was spying on Prescott but still did not stop him from gaining 8 yards and a first down.  Shortly thereafter, he failed to pick up a handoff, leading to another 8-yard 1st-down run that Depriest should've stopped at the line.  He missed a tackle on Josh Robinson in the backfield, leading to a 7-yard run.

More damagingly, he was in position to stop Robinson 3 yards downfield on a 3rd-and-10 3rd-quarter swing pass but barely slowed him down, leading to a first down.  And when State had 4th-and-3 with 2:40 left in the 2nd quarter and Bama leading 19-0, the spying Depriest allowed Prescott to get to the corner and pick up the first.  A stop there and this game would've gone to the half 19-0 and might've been a rout.  Instead, Depriest not only let Prescott get the first, but tacked on 15 for good measure with a face mask tackle.  The Bulldogs drove to the 1 and went to the half with the feeling they could move the ball on this Bama team.

It's when Trey is not playing well, and letting guys beat him to the corner, that the difference between his waistline and Ragland's is most noticeable.

Defensive Backs

A game ball for Nick Perry?  The much-maligned 5th-year senior safety came into the season with a new physique and is obviously starting to get comfortable with it.  Over the last two games, Perry has been playing at a high level.  He's still not a shutdown guy in pass coverage, but he keeps plays in front of him, which was what he was doing when he cashed in on the opportunity Dak Prescott gave him to step in front of the receiver for Bama's first pick of the game, coming on State's first trip into scoring position.  Perry led the team with 12 tackles, including a solid solo tackle on Robinson at the line on a sweep and two terrific plays on option sweeps, both 3rd-down plays and both forcing punts, one on Prescott and one on the pitch man.

Alabama's cornerback play the last two games has been the strongest it has been since Dee Milliner and Deion Belue held down the positions in 2012.  Bama features two young cornerbacks, so you can only expect it to get better.

Eddie Jackson is the more physical of the two, and made a nice play to run around Robinson's block on a blitz to force an incompletion.  Later, he took down Prescott in the backfield on a running play.  He gave up a couple of big completions, one on the first touchdown pass when he got snaked by a fake, and an easy 10-yard 4th-quarter completion on 4th-and-7 when he gave his man too much cushion, but made a nice deflection on another 4th-quarter crossing pattern.  In the first quarter, Jackson made what may have been the pass defense play of the game, reaching back to break up a perfect back-shoulder pass: you know, the kind that's "impossible" to defend.

Cyrus Jones had a brief second-quarter breakdown when, over a 5-play period he (1) slipped and gave up an 8-yard gain right after Depriest's facemask penalty, (2) gave his man a step inside and a 14-yard gain to the 1 only two plays later, and (3) lined up in the neutral zone on the next play, but otherwise had another excellent game.  I'm not sure he's quite ready for the All-American plaudits Gary Danielson was heaping on him, but he's good and getting better.  The first-quarter safety came on the play after Cyrus broke up State's first-down pass.  His tight coverage on a tricky quick pass on a third-down play just before the half forced State to settle for 3.  His pick, when he blanketed his man to force him out of bounds and looked up in time to snag a ball Prescott should've thrown away, is competitive with Jackson's back-shoulder swatdown for pass defense play of the day.

Geno Smith let his man get behind him for the final touchdown on a 4th-and-4 play, but it was his penetration that gave Depriest the chance to knife into the end zone for the safety.  Smith also made a sensational play later on to play off a block and stop Robinson for 4 on a sweep play.  Smith played almost the entire game in Jarrick Williams normal position and there was no noticeable dropoff.  If anything, Smith is a little tighter in coverage.

Landon Collins made a tip-drill reaction on the huge 4th-quarter pick and was physical in run support, as usual.  He didn't make a lot of plays in pass defense, though, and missed a big 3rd-quarter tackle on Prescott.

Special Teams

First and foremost, breathe a sigh of relief that nobody broke a kickoff return and Bama did not fumble a punt return.

Adam Griffith had another so-so game.  Made one make-able field goal, missed another, but the miss was not ugly and he looks slightly more comfortable out there than he did two or three games back.  Perhaps the worst of his undisclosed physical ailment is behind him.

And in what is becoming a normal refrain, all hail J.K. Scott, who was simply sensational, averaging 46.8 on the game even though he had to take something off his first two punts, both of which came from inside State territory.  Scott's first four punts were all downed inside the State 20, including three inside the 10.  However, Scott did punt a returnable ball early in the 4th quarter and State's Fred Ross took it 23 yards to the Bama 39, setting up the Bulldogs' first touchdown, and his last punt was nearly blocked.  In fairness to Scott, the reason it was nearly blocked was not because Scott mishandled it or was slow with it, it was because a Bulldog rusher knifed in between Denzell Devall and Xzavier Dickson and came straight up the middle untouched.  Bama bit a bullet on that one, as it would've been blocked if the rusher hadn't actually overrun the punt.

He may have had three first-down receptions, but DeAndrew White's biggest catch was the onside kick after State's last touchdown.  DeAndrew got a Sunday hop on the ball and it was an easy play.