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Initial Impressions: Alabama Football Pirates Mississippi State’s Ship, Makes Mike Leach Walk the Plank

The Alabama defense pitches its first shutout since 2018

Mississippi State vs Alabama Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

On November 10th, 2018, the Alabama Crimson Tide, led by an injured Tua Tagovailoa, shut out Mississippi State by holding the Bulldogs to 169 total yards.

Almost exactly two years later, Alabama finally got another shut out. Again, against Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs entered this game with the SEC’s top defense (though that mantle once belonged to Georgia... Until they played Alabama). And that did show up in the first few drives. Alabama opened the game with some nice runs from Najee Harris mixed in with a couple of downfield shots. The Bulldogs tried the Auburn strategy of pass defense— blitz the house and hold the receivers on every throw— and the referee’s quickly made it clear there would be none of that. The drive ultimately stalled when Alabama forgot how to block on a jet sweep, and then Devonta Smith somehow dropped a touchdown in the back corner of the endzone on third down.

No worries, though. The best kicker in the world, Will Reichard, banged one right through to uprights.

Mississippi State went three and out, and punted it right back. 1/5

On their next drive, Alabama looked a bit discombobulated as State dialed blitzes left and right. They converted a first down when Jones fumbled the snap, but Najee Harris deftly picked the ball up and dashed around the line of scrimmage. It almost looked like an intentional old fumblerooski play if I didn’t know any better. The drive stalled, though, and Charlie Scott boomed a 46 yard punt... Which I believe is probably Alabama’s best punt since, well, J.K. Scott was still around.

Mississippi State went three and out, and punted it right back. 2/5

After poking at the defense a little more with some Harris runs, Jones finally connected on the deep shot he’d been so obviously wanting, hitting Devonta Smith down the left sideline for a 35 yard touchdown on an out-n-up route.

Mississippi State went three and out, and punted it right back. 3/5

Three plays later, Smith yet again burned a guy on an out-n-up down the left sideline for a 53 yard score. This one was a little underthrown, but it didn’t matter, as Smitty outraced the guy to the endzone anyway.

Mississippi State went three and out, and punted it right back. 4/5

A brilliant throw to Smith on a corner route got Alabama down to the 10 yard line, but a false start ruined the drive, and the Tide settled for another field goal. Reichard is still perfect on the year. Who would have ever thought you’d hear that?

Mississippi State went three and out, and punted it right back. 5/5

Phidarian Mathis singlehandedly ruined this drive, absolutely embarrassing a center trying to block him and getting a sack, and then batting a throw on the next play. It’s always fun to see a 300-pound man dancing. Then on third down, QB K.J. Costello tried to scramble and was chased down by Dylan Moses before his head collided with Christian Harris’s knee. Costello was eventually drug back into the locker room for concussion protocol, and was replaced by freshman Will Rogers.

Alabama tried to totally demoralize the Bulldogs by handing the ball off to Najee Harris a whole bunch of times on the next drive, but ultimately wound up getting stopped on a 4th and 1 attempt across midfield where Harris’s head crossed the first down line but the ball seemed to be inches short.

That 4th down stop ignited a sleeping Mississippi State offense, as they gained their first first down of the game. Then they got stopped on three straight plays and punted again.

This time, Alabama made them pay with and old school 12-play drive that ate up 88 yards and nearly 6 minutes of clock. Trey Sanders (!) came in for Harris at running back in his first real shot at meaningful time with starters, and he performed quite well, picking up 2 first downs on 4 runs. Jones did throw a horrid ball straight to a defender down the field, but Devonta Smith turned on his cornerback skills and broke it up before it turned into an interception. Smith again capped off the drive for his third TD of the night on a slant route that broke some poor fool’s ankles at the line of scrimmage.

Now, stop me if you’ve heard this before.... But the Bulldogs went three and out and punted the ball right back.

This time, Alabama was happy to run one play and go to halftime with a 27 point lead.

In 7 first half drives, Mike Leach’s offense went 3-and-out on 6 of them, and only got a single first down on the the other. Alabama had very clearly simplified their defense, dropped into a whole bunch of shallow zones, and then gang tackled every single time the State QB tossed another 3-yard crossing route or RB dump off.

The second half started a bit slow, with the two teams trading 4 punts as Alabama slowly conceded some field position. Rogers finally managed to get the Bulldog offense moving forward a little bit, even if it took 10 plays and a 4th down conversion to get all of 49 yards. The drive ended though when Dylan Moses stripped the ball from senior receiver Osirus Mitchell in the endzone to come down with an interception, and then for some unknown reason, tried to return it, only to get tackled on the 1 yard line.

The Alabama offense was happy to take extra room for some more stat-padding, though. For the third time of the night, Smith burned a man on an out-n-up on the left sideline. Jones underthrew him a bit too much though, and he had to stop and jump for the ball, so it was only a 35 yard gain instead of a 98-yard touchdown.

Aaaannnnddd the Bulldogs went three and out again.

At this point, Alabama started putting in the backups for a nice and easy end to the game that took waaayyy too long. Freshman DT Timothy Smith ended a long drive that looked like it might break the shutout by sniffing out a shuffle pass and then manhandling the running back and just stealing the ball from him. Unfortunately, after getting stopped in the redzone, Bryce Young gave the ball right back when he tried to pump fake and the ball squirted out of his tiny hands.

No matter, though, as Pat Surtain got a read on a curl route and jumped in front of the receiver, racing off for a pick six to put Alabama up 41-0. The back-up defense held strong on the final drive despite Saban’s scorched-earth screaming, and the game ended with the first shutout of Mike Leach’s entire career.

After so much angst from Bama fans about the state of the Tide defense this season, they were downright dominant tonight. They forced three and outs on nearly every drive, got pressure with 3- and 4-man rushes all night, gang tackled on short passes, and even got Saban screaming at the backups in the 4th quarter of a total domination. It felt like 2009-2015 all over again.

Sure, State’s offense has been pretty bad since week 1, but they’re still a team that put 700 yards up against LSU, and like to pass the ball to their running backs— something of an Achilles Heel for the Tide so far this season. But Pete Golding changed his defense to a much simpler zone defense that allowed his much more athletic defenders to immediately swarm and attack every single time they threw a short pass.

The three freshmen— Will Anderson, Malachi Moore, and Brian Branch— Were absolutely awesome. Anderson led the team with a couple of tackles for loss, and he made a few jaw dropping pass rush moves that saw him beat a blocker and destroy the QB just as he let go of a throw. Moore led the team with 8 tackles and 2 passes defended as a highly active slot cornerback, and Branch, the dime slot corner, had 7 tackles and made a couple of pass breakups of his own.

Josh Jobe and Pat Surtain were targeted a combined three times to my recollection, and Jobe almost intercepted one and almost killed the receiver on the other while Surtain returned his for a score. Throw at those guys at your own risk. And also don’t even run to Jobe’s side, as he’s liable to commit manslaughter in his excitement at actually getting to see some action:

Probably the most encouraging stat is that safeties Jordan Battle and Daniel Wright only had 5 combined tackles and 1 pass breakup. When your safeties aren’t getting stats, that’s usually a clear indicator the the front seven and corners are dominating the game.

Dylan Moses had second straight week of not getting caught flat-footed, as he impressively chased the running back into the flats and then made a nice wrap-up tackle instead of getting juked back to the inside. He also had the nice endzone interception to go along with his 7 tackles.

Offensively, Alabama had probably their worst game of the season. And Mac Jones still had 291 yards with 4 TDs and no interceptions while Najee Harris rushed for over 100 yards. Again, against the best defense in the SEC. So you can’t complain too much there. Jones was definitely a bit over-reliant on the deep ball, tossing a few of them despite defenders being in great position. He had a couple of near-interceptions that could have very easily gone against him.

Devonta Smith had nearly all of his passing production, snagging 11 balls for 203 yards and all 4 touchdowns. The senior was absolutely phenomenal, and the state of Mississippi must really be tired of that guy. As is the state of Georgia, for that matter. And I guess Louisiana, too.

The offensive line wasn’t as sharp pass-blocking against a blitz-heavy scheme, but they continued to dominate in the run game as Najee Harris racked up 119 yards on 21 carries and Trey Sanders got 80 yards of his own. The redshirt freshman looked much less hesitant than he did in his first moment’s of mop-up duty, and he’s very clearly got an extra gear of big-play speed to go along with the power to push a big pile of defenders for a first down. It was an all around great showing for the guy, and he very well could be about to pass up Brian Robinson for the official RB2 role.

Overall, this was about as good of a game as one could hope for. The Alabama defense dominated, and the offense was still absolutely deadly despite not playing as well as we’ve seen in the past. If the Tide can keep some of that simplified scheme allowing more aggressive tackling going forward, all that talent on defense might actually starting playing up to their potential.

And if that happens on a consistent basis, watch out, college football.

Roll Tide!