Early in the season, critics opined that the Alabama Crimson Tide football team lacked an identity on offense and suggested that they would be unable to contend for a national title unless one was found. After all, offenses define teams these days, right?
Well, they've found one. It's called "protect the ball and let the defense win the game."
For much of this game the offense struggled mightily. Jake Coker completed 60% of his passes, but that is a rather mediocre number when the average completion goes for less than 10 yards as his did. The Mississippi St. Bulldogs followed the proper script against the Tide: stack the box, attack the run game, and send extra rushers in the pass game. This turned out to be an effective strategy, as Coker struggled while 20 of Derrick Henry's 22 carries netted only 65 yards. Advanced stats such as success rate are not going to be pretty. Several times Jake held onto the ball rather than throw it down the field against single coverage, which was likely a product of an ugly first half "arm-punt" interception under pressure. At some point we may have to get more aggressive on offense.
For now, however, let's stick with what works. Alabama's offense continues to resemble that of the 2011 national championship team, and in this game was reminiscent of traditional American League baseball: forget the small ball, be patient and wait for the three-run homer. If teams are going to fly into the backfield for the entire game, there will be opportunities for big plays, and Alabama managed several of those yesterday. Cyrus Jones broke the ice with a punt return for a touchdown. Calvin Ridley took a simple seven-yard hook to the house on a 60-yard score. Henry's other two carries went for 139 yards as he finished with a Heisman caliber 204 yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns. The Bulldogs took their best shot at the Alabama offense and managed to frustrate them for a good portion of the day, but ultimately gave up 31 points.
In what has become a running theme, 31 points was more than enough for the Alabama defense. To be frank, there was a feeling that the game was over once the Tide got to 14. Dak Prescott is arguably the best player in Mississippi State history, and he predictably made some plays in his last chance to beat Alabama. Indeed, the defense gave up too many yards in the first half of the game but rose to the occasion when it mattered, most notably managing a goal line stand in the first quarter that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Prescott was sacked six times in the first half and nine for the game while also absorbing several nasty shots on his 26 carries for 14 yards. All told, the Bulldogs ran for a paltry 89 yards on 42 carries while Prescott finished with 300 yards on 43 attempts. The 85 snaps were more than the Tide typically allows, a function of the offense's boom-or-bust performance. Thanks to the embarrassment of riches in the defensive front, the unit never wore down, allowing only 4.62 yards per play. Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson, and Tim Williams were the main aggressors in the pass rush, but there were bodies flying to the ball from every direction.
Adam Griffith drilled another field goal and continued to put the bulk of his kickoffs into the end zone. He is kicking the ball confidently and with authority. J.K. Scott had an uneven performance, shanking his first two punts, but finishing with a respectable 40-yard average. I'm done trying to figure out kickers. The Cyrus Jones punt return came at a perfect time to take some of the steam out of the cowbell-wielding critters in the crowd. Kick and punt coverage teams were outstanding.
Unfortunately, the Tide was unable to emerge unscathed from this one. Poor Kenyan Drake suffered a fractured arm while making a tackle on special teams and will miss around three weeks. This likely means that he will miss the SEC Championship Game should the Tide get there as they are heavily favored to do at this point. Needless to say, some combination of Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris are going to have to step up and take some carries. Expect to see a heavy dose of both players in next weekend's cupcake game that will likely serve as something of an audition. A reporter asked Saban about Drake being on special teams considering his critical role in the offense, and Saban simply responded that Drake was on the punt coverage team because he is one of the team's best gunners.
Jake Coker went into the tent after falling on his throwing shoulder but came back into the game. This will certainly be something to watch going forward. Reuben Foster left the game with a wrist injury and Minkah Fitzpatrick with a sprained knee, but Saban said both players should be fine going forward. I'd be fine with both resting next weekend.
This has been a supremely satisfying season for Alabama fans to this point. So many in the media had written the team off after last season's loss in the playoffs, and completely buried them after the Ole Miss loss. The win in Starkville guarantees that the Tide will roll into the Iron Bowl as the heavy favorite to take the vaunted SEC West. Rest the starters next week, destroy Auburn, and ride the best defense in the nation into the postseason.