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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 28, 2012
The game was billed as a clash of titans, two undefeated juggernauts running headlong into each other’s path, the fate of the SEC West resting on every snap.
It might have been billed as such an epic battle, but Alabama turned it into simply Chapter 8 of the same story the Crimson Tide has been telling each week since early September.
Alabama beat Mississippi State 38-7, despite not playing particularly well for stretches of the game. Yet the effort Alabama brought was still better than anything the Bulldogs could muster, and it left several Mississippi State players – most notably future NFL cornerback Johnthan Banks – almost awestruck in postgame comments.
Given that Alabama is in a four-way competition now for one of two slots in the BCS Championship Game, along with Notre Dame, Kansas State and Oregon, every game is critical. Every point, every outcome, every offensive drive or defensive stand is a chance to score favor with voters. One would think there would be no way Alabama could be left out of the national championship game at year’s end, but SEC fatigue is real, and with media darling Notre Dame part of the equation, Alabama’s best course of action is to continue to dismantle teams the way it did Mississippi State and remove any what-if questions before they’re even asked.
It was evident before the game that Mississippi State’s schedule had been its best friend thus far in the season, as the toughest test for the Bulldogs came against either Tennessee or Troy. That same Troy team, by the way, lost a game to woeful Florida Atlantic on Saturday night.
But once the lights went on at Bryant-Denny Stadium, all talk of Mississippi State’s schedule went out the window, replaced with mouth-agape awe at just how effective a machine Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa. Quarterback A.J. McCarron was again nearly flawless, the defense forced turnovers at crucial moments and snuffed a State drive in the end zone, blocked a field goal and generally kept the Bulldogs out of striking distance until Saban emptied the bench on the Bulldogs’ final drive, which allowed Mississippi State to finally score.
Beginning at about the midpoint of the second quarter, however, most of the talk in the stadium was beginning to turn toward LSU and Texas A&M, a pair of teams expected to give Alabama stern tests over the next two weeks. Alabama will need to be on its toes next week to generate points against the Tiger defense and stop a resurgent running game, while against Texas A&M, the defense will face its biggest challenge of the year in the form of a talented young quarterback and a veteran wide receiver corps.
If Alabama can get through those two games unscathed, then simply take care of business against Western Carolina and Auburn, it sets up a meeting with the Jekyll/Hyde Georgia Bulldogs and then, ultimately, the best team of the three mentioned above. Alabama has the future in its own hands, and only Alabama can let it slip away now.
Here’s the Five Point Breakdown for Mississippi State:
1. Tweaks to the defense continue, this time at linebacker. Alabama employed a new Jack linebacker rotation against Mississippi State. Xzavier Dickson rarely left the field Saturday, taking snaps that had been going to Adrian Hubbard. Technically, Hubbard is the Jack and Dickson the strongside linebacker, but whenever Alabama was in nickel – which practically was the entire game – it was Dickson and not Hubbard usually sliding down to a rush end position. Hubbard played mostly when Alabama went to a twin-Jack look over its light package inside. And then there was Denzel Devall, whose playing time continues to increase. His snaps came mostly at Hubbard’s expense. Alabama has been looking for a better outside pass rush recently, and there have been rumblings that the coaches are concerned Hubbard has plateaued a bit. Consider this rotation a sent message, as Alabama got plenty of pressure on Tyler Russell on Saturday.
2. Outside pass protection continues to be spotty. Mississippi State’s pass rush is average by SEC standards, but QB A.J. McCarron was flushed from the pocket several times and sacked twice. As has been the case for much of the year, RT D.J. Fluker tended to struggle when matched up against speed rushers. But McCarron suffered a minor back injury in the third quarter off a sack yielded by LT Cyrus Kouandjio, who let Cameron Lawrence beat him inside. Alabama used its backup quarterbacks to score the game-clinching touchdown early in the fourth quarter and was able to manage the situation this time, but LSU won’t be so forgiving next week.
3. Special teams erratic again. Kickoff specialist Cade Foster reached the end zone three times with kickoffs, but not deep enough to deter Bulldog returns. Thankfully for Alabama, the damage was kept in check thanks to the Crimson Tide’s stiff defense and a couple of forced fumbles on returns. On the flip side, Alabama’s Cyrus Jones has helped the Tide achieve a record of 6th nationally in kickoff returns, and punter Cody Mandell had arguably his best game in crimson, deftly dropping in short punts and booming a couple of long ones. The maddening part of Bama’s special teams in 2012 is trying to figure out which aspects will show up on any given week, and which ones will be absent.
4. The battle that was, was not the battle that was expected. Most were looking at the battle of the trenches being the difference in this game, but that wasn’t completely so. Alabama didn’t firmly establish its running game until well into the second half, as the Tide had amassed fewer than 60 yards rushing in the first half. The second critical matchup, that of Alabama’s wide receivers against State’s fine secondary, went Alabama’s way, but not overly so, as McCarron rang up 208 yards passing, most of them on shorter routes (Kenny Bell’s long touchdown notwithstanding). Instead, the matchup of note turned out to be Mississippi State’s receivers against the Alabama secondary, which held MSU QB Tyler Russell to 169 yards passing and visibly intimidated the Bulldog wideouts. Mississippi State basically put together only two drives of note, one which ended in a blocked field goal and another in an interception in the end zone. In terms of wideout performance, those two drives were the exceptions; the rest of the night, Alabama DBs patrolled the field like Dobermans in a liquor store backlot.
5. Red zone playcalling operating at a high level. No team is going to be perfect in the red zone, but good teams develop a reputation for dictating terms. Alabama’s offense has achieved such status. It doesn’t hurt to have a gunslinger like McCarron pulling the trigger, but Alabama has begun to turn the art of decompressing the passing game into an art form. Between the use of tight end Michael Williams as a threat in that area, and the zone stretch running plays to Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, Alabama lost no momentum upon crossing the MSU 20-yard line Saturday. By comparison, Mississippi State went from finely-tuned machine to rusted-out jalopy when it got in close. If Alabama simply maintains its current level of red zone effectiveness, LSU may be in for a long night.
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