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Initial Impressions: Alabama Defeats Mississippi State, but Both Teams Lose

Tua Tagovailoa is injured again. That is basically the only part of this game that mattered.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The game started with a nod to Lane Kiffin, as Steve Sarkisian dialed up the fan favorite jet sweep “pass” to Henry Ruggs III. One thing I learned from the Kiffin years is that going horizontal at the start of the game is the best way to eliminate over-hyped aggressive fronts— one of the biggest issues Alabama had trying to “establish the run” at the start of the game with Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier.

Anyway, a false start derailed the the first set of downs, and a 3rd and 11 looked like it might spell a 3 and out to open the game. Instead, Tua Tagovailoa stood in the pocket and calmly lofted a ball to the heavens. It reached it’s apex, then plummeted between the deep safety and corner to Jerry Jeudy, who had torched everyone down the seam for a 35-yard gain. Two plays later, Najee Harris juked two men in the hole then drug a hapless Miss State defender into the endzone for Alabma’s first touchdown.

Nice start. But could the defense match it? They did. QB Tommy Stevens threw a pass directly into the sternum of the oft-maligned freshman linebacker, Shane Lee. Alabama ball. To finish pushing in the dagger, Sark dialed up my favorite RB wheel route. Najee was about as wide open as car driving down an Oklahoma highway and jogged into the endzone for his second TD.

That’s when Mississippi State remembered all of their scouting of the Tide defense. They ran a QB draw for about 20 yards. Fortunately, the Tide defense got them back into a 3rd down, and Raekwon Davis and Christian Barmore closed on the QB for a bone crunching sack. Except the senior Davis decided to grab a nice handful of facemask, extending the drive. Following that up with more film study exploitation, they sent RB Kylin Hill into the flats and then turning deep, toasting Shane Lee for a huge gain to the goal line. Hill punched it in a play later, ending the hot start for Alabama.

The next drive saw the Miss State defensive line utterly overwhelm Alabama’s front. The Tide moved the ball a few times with a big run and a 3rd down conversion and drew a pass interference, but they went backwards more often than forwards. Then Jerry Jeudy scored on a drag route, except he got called for the mythical offensive facemask. Following that, Landon Dickerson hit someone after the play, and instead of a touchdown, now it’s second and 28. Our savior Najee Harris took a dump off for over 20 of those yards, and another pass interference on a slant route* got Alabama into the endzone.

*again, State saw on film how LSU defended the slant: just mug the receivers. They weren’t as good at not getting called for interference as the Tigers were, though.

Henry Ruggs thankfully recovered a bad fumble from DeVonta Smith and then, yet again, Harris capped off the drive by dragging 3 guys into the endzone. His emergence the last few weeks has been so very critical for Alabama’s offense. The whole drive was a struggle, but it was nice to see the Tide fight to keep the drive alive despite some nice plays from the State defensive front.

On the ensuing drive, Shyheim Carter made back to back tackles at the line of scrimmage. I’ve picked on Carter for his run defense this year, but that was impressive, and he really made a number of nice plays all game long. Trevon Diggs very nearly picked off a deep bomb one-handed (seriously, he went airborne and palmed the ball, but the impact with the ground knocked it out of his hand), and with 1 minute to go in the first quarter, we finally saw the first punt of the game.

Brian Robinson ran the ball fairly well a couple of times, and freshman TE Jahleel Billingsley caught his first pass of the season in the flats. In his attempt to become the next “OJ Howard-unused-secret-weapon-fan-favorite,” he sped up around his defender and shot down the sideline for about 20 yards. A few plays later, we all saw our favorite Alabama play: Tua drops, looks right, then unloads deep down the left sideline. Surprisingly, it wasn’t DeVonta Smith this time. It was Jaylen Waddle, who had run an out-n-up. The announcers thought it was just an out route that Tua threw deep, and Waddle has the inhuman speed to adjust and catch it anyway. Either way, it was a beautiful deep touchdown throw for a QB that supposedly only throws slants. At this point, Tua was 9/9 for 193 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The Alabama defense made three nice tackles (crazy what happens when you actually make your tackles) and forced a quick three and out.

Despite some solid run defense on the next drive, Tua lofted a couple of nice balls down the left sideline for big chunk gains, then converted a 3rd and 8 scrambling to his left and hitting Jeudy in the middle of the field between zone coverages. Following that, Najee Harris sifted his way through traffic for his 4th touchdown of the day.

Alabama forced another quick punt by breaking up some deep balls and sending safety blitzes. If anything, I was just glad to see Golding actually scheming up some pressure on the QB.

The Tide got the ball back, and all expected Mac Jones to come into the game, even Mac himself. Well, Tua came back in anyway, and on third down was flushed out of the pocket, getting tackled by two guys as he threw the ball away. He got up with a nose gushing blood, but then couldn’t stand either. He left the field on a cart with a hip injury.

You just can’t have a perfect football player. Finally get someone that’s both a great runner and passer, and he’s so brittle that it will forever mar his college career.

The teams traded punts to end the half, but senior Raekwon Davis went out with a rough looking ankle injury in the middle of it.

The 35-7 score at halftime looked nice, but the injuries were catastrophic and about the worst possible outcome for Alabama.

The second half didn’t start much better. Mississippi State got another huge QB draw to open the half, but the Alabama defense did stand tall. Mac Jones came out and started moving the ball well, but State lost a defender to a gruesome non-contact injury, and then Alabama lost Henry Ruggs III to a big hit to the chest right at the goal line and settled for a field goal.

This is fine.

The Bulldogs got a few nice plays and extended their drive until freshman linebacker Christian Harris shot into the backfield and blew up a run play. In the process of going down, star running back Kylin Hill twisted around awkwardly and, like everyone else, was taken off the field. At this point, I wish the coaches could just agree to end the game. Players on both sides were helping each other up after plays, everyone was just done with this cesspit of a football game.

Mac Jones made a couple of nice throws on the next drive, but it eventually stalled after a 46-yard jet sweep from DeVonta Smith was called back due to weird formation.

Another Bulldog drive, another big QB run to start it off. Alabama did hold them to a 4th and 1 with a nice play from Barmore to prevent yet another QB draw, but they converted after the QB dodge two sure sacks in the backfield and dumped the ball off. No harm no foul, though, as they wound up turning it over on downs on the following set of plays.

From there, it was all back-ups for Alabama. Not too much happened, but Ben Davis- YES. THAT BEN DAVIS- shot through the offensive line for a bone-crunching 4th down sack to end the Bulldogs’ final drive.

The entire story in this game is the injuries. Tua Tagovailoa has what is potentially a serious hip injury and was taken in helicopter to Birmingham. Everyone with an online account is giving their opinion on why Saban was wrong for allowing Tua to play at all. I’ll join in and give my opinion, then I won’t another word about it.

A coach cannot sit players in fear of injury. Tua Tagovailoa was moving around fine and seemed to be moving at least 85% on his ankle, which, with the tightrope surgery, shouldn’t be a risk to get worse. Tua getting flushed out of the pocket on 3rd down and then landing in such a weird way is a totally unpredictable thing, and blaming coach for not taking him out a drive earlier (when it was still only the second quarter) is nothing more than hindsight questioning. And, quite honestly, dumb and useless.

There’s a lot of speculation out there about how bad the injury is, but I don’t know and will leave that for another article.

Anyway, Raekwon Davis’s injury also looked pretty bad. His foot twisted way too far to the outside and stayed that way after he went to the ground. He was seen in an ankle boot after, so he likely pulled some ligaments further than they should go. DJ Dale, who I failed to mention earlier, twisted his knee early and missed most of the game, and Henry Ruggs bruised his ribs. We don’t really know the severity on either of those guys, but I imagine Ruggs at least should be just fine.

In relief of Davis and Dale, we saw a whole lot of Christian Barmore and Byron Young. Barmore in particular made a lot of really good plays, including a couple of tackles on what were about to be big runs by the QB on draws or read options. He was in the backfield more often than not, and is really making a case to be a full-time starter. Young made a couple of nice plays as well, but I also saw him get blown back a few times.

We all knew Miss State had a bad passing offense, but only 82 yards on 21 attempts was an awesome performance from the passing defense. Terrell Lewis was quiet, but Barmore and Jennings created a lot of havoc in the backfield while Golding actually schemed up a number of pressures from Christian Harris, Shane Lee, Jared Mayden, and Xavier McKinney on some more exotic blitz looks. Meanwhile, Pat Surtain, Trevon Diggs, and Shyheim Carter absolutely locked down their receivers in both the short and deep passing games. Basically all of their passing yards came on the linebackers in cross-field coverage, and even that only happened a few times.

The rushing defense really cleaned up their tackling, limiting star running back Kylin Hill to 2.2 yards per carry. Back up Nick Gipson did have a couple of big runs against the Tide’s patchwork second defense, but that happened after both teams were just trying to run clock. The only issue all game was the QB draw, where Tommy Stevens had four different huge runs in wide open fields, getting him to almost 100 rushing yards. Aside from that, the defense was nearly perfect the rest of the day.

On offense, it was about as good a first half as you’d expect against a defense that’s not even in the top-100 in the nation. Every receiver was making big plays, Tua was dropping dimes, and Najee made every defender miss at least twice. The offensive line alternated between opening gaping holes and giving Tua 5 seconds to throw to having occasional meltdowns in both areas. Some of that was just the way Mississippi State schemes their defensive front. They send a lot of stunt blitzes as basically their base defensive philosophy, which can create a lot of negative plays, but also leaves more openings in the defense if they get picked up.

After Tua went out, Mac Jones mostly threw the ball well, especially on a few deep out and corner routes. He did have two horrible misses on running back screens, but other than that, he looked good.

Jahleel Billingsley got a good bit of playing time, but is still behind Major Tennison on the depth chart. Neither one is all that great at blocking to be frank, and Billingsley looks like a much more dangerous weapon in the passing game. Either way, though, I still think Alabama would be better off to just eschew the TE and get all four great receivers on the field at the same time every play.

Ultimately, we didn’t learn too much about team today. The defense did seem to focus on not missing tackles, and, aside from that crazy 4th down play where Christian Harris jumped instead of just running through the QB, they pretty much did it. The whole team struggled to stop the QB draws, but were good enough at stopping pretty much any other type of play that it didn’t really matter.

I think at this point we know what this team is, and even with Mac Jones, this is still an elite and explosive offense that is carrying a good-but-not-great defense. I’m sure we’ll hear plenty more on the injuries to Tua, Raewon, DJ, and Henry in the coming weeks. But, at some point, a team just can’t overcome the sheer amount of injuries that Alabama has sustained this year. And that is what it is.

Roll Tide