Nick Saban is quite possible the greatest college football coach of all time. But even a GOAT can have an Achilles heel. For Saban it has been special teams. I won’t go into all the gory details of the failures of special teams over the years so close to the holidays. Suffice it to say, they have let down the team a time or two. However, in recent seasons, they have been quite a boon. One could say this change coincided with former ST coach Bobby Williams being kicked upstairs to an administration job.
Saturday was a different story. The kicking teams struggled mightily in the Tide’s close shave against Mississippi State. One early gaffe in particular changed the entire complexity of the game.
JK Scott opened the game as he usually does with a kickoff for a touchback. The Tide defense comes out and absolutely stymies Nick Fitzgerald into two incompletions with two knockdowns, and a sack for a loss of ten yards. Three and out, negative yardage and NickyFitz on the ground for three straight plays. What a great way to start. And then, the leap.
A stupid new rule instituted this year outlawing players who "leap" over blockers to try and block a kick. (Yet, guys who hurdle and lead with their cleats into a defender’s face is perfectly hunky-dory). If you see the replay, what occurred hardly qualifies towards why this rule was created. Unbelievably, this is a a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and new life for MSU. They would escape the shadow of their own goal post and eventually punt the ball to the Bama 5 yard line.
Under conservative play-calling, the Tide does not move the ball and has a three and out sending the defense right back out there. Scott has a nice 52 yard punt but now MSU has the ball at their 43. They drive the field for the first touchdown of the game.
Bama Answers But a Short Kickoff
Jalen Hurts comes right back at the Bulldogs with a rapid fire drive that evens the score at 7-7. However, JK Scott has an uncharacteristically bad kickoff fielded at the 10 and returned to the 27. With some breathing room, State can open up the playbook and drive the field to retake the lead 14-7.
At Least One Muff Per Game
Doesn’t it seem that way? This week’s muff came in the second quarter when Xavian Marks awkwardly attempted to field a punt at the 24 and fortunately fell on it at the 18. In the hole again.
Shank (and I don’t mean Alphonse Taylor)
On a second quarter punt, Scott did not get off a good kick but luckily the ball hit the ground a rolled about ten yards for a 49 yard kick. He was not so lucky the next attempt. Near the end of the first half, his punt traveled 32 yards and went out-of-bounds at the MSU 28. Dan Mullen chose to take a knee with 26 ticks left. He may be regretting that now.
Poor Kickoff Coverage
Alabama opens the second half with a drive of 7 plays and 63 yards and a 30 yard field goal by Andy Pappanastos. Scott sends a nice kickoff to the MSU 2 but coverage is spotty and it is returned to the 31.
Another Shorty for Scott
It wasn’t terrible but 41 yard punts are not what we have come to expect from JK. Down 21-17 in the 3rd quarter, he does just that and MSU starts their drive at the 36.
Running into the Kicker - Declined
After the above punt, the Bulldogs drive down into field goal range and connect, but there is a flag (of course there is). It is Running into the Kicker which is 5 yards as opposed to Roughing the Kicker which is 15 yards. It is not enough to give the Bullies a first down and they take the 3 points and a 24-17 lead.
After four touchbacks, freshman Henry Ruggs decides he is going to run this kickoff out of the end zone, even with teammate Trevon Diggs telling him to stay put. The Tide begins at the 18 yards.
Not Scott’s Fault
Bama ties it up at 24-24. Alex Leatherwood feels it is prudent to run into the end zone with no helmet on to celebrate. Because of the penalty, Scott’s kickoff is fielded at the 18 and returned to the 40.
Still tied, Alabama puts together a drive of 10 plays and 57 yards but stalls at the 23. Pappanastos hits the left upright from 41 yards out in what could have been a game-winner with 2:03 to go.
Thankfully, Alabama clamps down on Mississippi State and forces a punt with little over a minute to play. Jalen Hurts does his best Joe Montana impersonation and Bama takes a 31-24 lead. But it’s not over yet. With 24 ticks to go, Saban chooses to employ one of my most hated maneuvers - the pooch kick. Instead of sending it deep or sky high in the air, the Scott kickoff goes out of bounds and it is MSU ball at the 35 and no time off the clock. However, the Tide D holds tough and the Tide wins.
ST Grade: C-
It wasn’t a horrible game for the Special Teams. There were some good punts, some kickoff touchbacks, decent kick coverage, a field goal and all extra points convereted, but clearly some things to work on.