Alabama rolled into Starkville as a 14 point favorite, looked like the lesser team for a good portion of the evening, then pulled it out in the end and left town feeling like they stole something.
So, what did we learn from this one?
If Alabama is to go on and win the SEC and national championships, it will look very different from what we are accustomed. The offense is going to have to carry the day.
Mississippi State was able to make far too many positive plays in the run game thanks to the depleted linebacker corps. This didn’t look like an issue of motivation for the Tide or any of the other external factors that fans often discuss. The inside linebackers looked like a legitimate roster weakness that there is no time to address.
Poor Rashaan Evans continues to play his heart out, but trying to play the Mike exposed the toll that his badly injured groin has taken on his speed and lateral explosiveness. On several occasions he just wasn’t able to get to the edge on time. The man is a warrior and even in his limited state is the best we have, but it’s tough to imagine the pain he is going through. Perhaps next week would be a good time to give him some rest.
Next to Evans was an unmitigated disaster at Will, shared by Keith Holcombe and Dylan Moses. I was personally shocked at how overmatched Holcombe was at the point of attack. We knew he was a smallish linebacker, but his tackling was abhorrent and he was pushed around with regularity. After the first touchdown drive that featured a blown tackle of Fitzgerald followed by Keith crumpling like a paper napkin on the score, Alabama defensive cooridanator Jeremy Pruitt understandably went to Moses. A true freshman, Moses looked as lost as a blind dog in a smokehouse. On several occasions he filled the wrong gap.
Remember, those two guys were supposed to share a backup role this season. Neither was ready to be featured prominently, and it showed. I honestly believed going in that we’d be OK in the first unit and just lacking depth, but that was clearly not the case. Unless something changes dramatically in the next two weeks, we should expect to be gashed in the run game and plan accordingly.
The secondary held up pretty well considering what was going on up front. Hootie Jones and Tony Brown are seemingly going to have a couple of moments in every game, and this one was no exception. They are seniors and we don’t have anybody ready to replace them, so it is what it is. Levi Wallace has obviously been outstanding all season, but he does have a speed limitation that shows up from time to time. He and Hootie each got lucky on deep balls last night when Fitzgerald overthrew open targets. On the plus side, he was affected by the pass rush on both of them.
On the other side of the ball, the offense was seemingly stuck in the mud for much of the game as well. If not for a superhuman effort from Calvin Ridley, the Tide may well have been run out of the stadium. Ridley looked like the superstar that he was billed to be, showing incredible catch-and-run ability that had to have NFL scouts drooling. He finished with five catches for 171 yards, a ridiculous 34 yard average.
The rest of the offense was rough in the first half. The Tide opened with a heavy dose of inside zone with mixed results. Perhaps this was an effort to limit the snaps on defense, but it wasn’t working. A jacked up Bulldogs defense playing in front of 40,000 cowbell wielding critters was selling out against the run and blitzing against the pass. Like LSU, they chose to force Hurts to beat them with explosive plays rather than allow the Tide to bludgeon them.
For a long stretch in the middle of the game, there was a stark contrast at the quarterback position that looked like it might be the difference in a Mississippi State victory. Pruitt blitzed incessantly on passing downs, and Fitzgerald responded by distributing the ball to his hot reads. He burned the Tide for explosive plays on a few occasions. On the other side, Hurts was responding poorly to the blitz, immediately taking his eyes down when he saw pressure coming from the secondary that he was supposed to be reading. This happened on consecutive plays with a little over four minutes left with the game tied and Alabama driving for what could be the winning score, resulting in eight lost yards and a premature field goal attempt that clanged off the left upright.
There wasn’t an Alabama fan watching at that point who didn’t have a pit in the stomach, just knowing that Fitzgerald would lead the Bulldogs down the field for a signature victory. Fortunately, the Tide defense rose to the occasion with its best series of the night. On first down they snuffed out a shovel option, pressured Fitzgerald into a poor throw on second, and then corralled him on a QB draw on third. The Bulldogs were forced to punt it back to Alabama with a bit over a minute to play.
Earlier in the half, Mississippi State had to burn a timeout on defense a couple of plays after Jalen had kind of gone into the shell against a blitz. As he walked toward the sideline, the most amateur lipreader could see Saban screaming, “Don’t take a sack!” Unfortunately, Jalen did just that the first time that Mississippi State sent pressure on that last possession. After giving up an easy completion to Ridley against soft defense, the Bulldogs cranked up the pressure on first and second down near midfield. Both times, Jalen reacted poorly, failing to get the ball out of his hands. On first down he escaped for a throwaway, and on second was sacked as he pulled the ball down and tried to take off.
The Tide called time out.
I don’t know what was said in that huddle, but Saban and/or Daboll need to bottle it. On 3rd-and-15, with 30 seconds to play in his own territory, Hurts stood in the face of a seven man rush and fired a strike on a slant to Ridley, who promptly turned it into a 30 yard gain. On the next play, the Bulldogs sent six and Jalen did it again, this time to freshman Devonta Smith on a skinny post for the game winning TD. Those two passes are exactly what critics have been looking for out of Jalen, and if he can do that consistently, everything else will open up. It’s nearly impossible to run the ball against good teams who don’t respect the pass. Based on what we saw at the end of the game, defenses had better start respecting it.
As mentioned above, this game needs to be a strategic wake-up call for the coaches. We are in unfamiliar territory here, lacking both talent and depth at a linebacker position that is going to keep the defense from being its dominant self for the balance of the season. The Tide offense took the training wheels off and rolled up 192 yards in the fourth quarter. Edge runs and passes created explosive plays and provided the necessary points. No longer is it good enough to hold the ball and play to the defense. Hurts is going to have to start firing early, assuming that winning will require the offense to get into the 30s. The good news is that the secondary is still a top five unit, so video game numbers may not be necessary.
Special teams had a forgettable night in this one. Besides the missed field goal, there were two shanked punts, another muffed punt that we somehow managed to recover yet again, a kickoff out of bounds, a leaping penalty on a punt in the first quarter that gave the Bulldogs a second wind and field position, and a terrible decision to bring a kickoff out of the end zone. It will not be a good week of film study for that group.
In the end, the Tide survived and advanced. At this stage of the season, that is all that really matters. They now have two weeks to come up with a game plan for Auburn. May it be a good one.