By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 17, 2013
With several teams still left undefeated in major college football this late in November, the subject of “style points” is sure to come up in any discussion of which team or teams should be ranked atop the standings.
The only style points Alabama put up against Mississippi State on Saturday was in showing how stylishly a team could dismiss the fallout of turnovers.
Alabama’s 20-7 win over the Bulldogs will probably be enough to keep Alabama atop the BCS standings. The effort behind that victory won’t be enough to beat Auburn in two weeks.
In Mississippi State, Alabama ran up against a physical defense that had something to prove. Mississippi State had been pushed around at time this season, but the Bulldog defensive front – for about half the game, at least – played heads-up against Alabama and disrupted the Crimson Tide’s offensive plan. But Alabama still rushed for a net 193 yards, and T.J. Yeldon’s performance was one of the keys to the Alabama victory.
Overall, though, this was a sloppy affair. A.J. McCarron played better than the stats suggested – one of his two interceptions was likely not an interception at all, and it’s still a mystery as to why the replay booth didn’t take a second look at the play – but he was far from taking over the game. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake continued to raise concerns over ball security. The offensive line took much of the first half to get in gear, and didn’t finish the game strongly.
If anything, the player of the game was punter Cody Mandell, who confounded MSU punt returner Jameon Lewis and twice pinned the Bulldogs inside their own 5. While solid punting is always welcome, the fact Mandell could make a case for game MVP in a November contest against an opponent that will likely miss a bowl game is not the stuff of champions.
What is the stuff of champions, though, is the way Alabama brushed off adversity. As soon as Alabama got to 10-0 in the second quarter, the lead seemed enough. McCarron was picked twice, and Yeldon and Drake fumbled once each, but there was never a time that Mississippi State felt in control of the game. Alabama was the protagonist. State was reactive.
However, a case could be made that Mississippi State wasn’t even the opponent in a lot of people’s minds Saturday – and it certainly wasn’t UT-Chattanooga, either. It was Auburn that most Alabama fans were buzzing about. The Tigers have a shot to play for a national title, if certain dominoes fall the right way. The finish to the Georgia game, besides being the most improbable finish since LSU knocked off Kentucky in the final seconds of the “Bluegrass Miracle” game in 2002, proved Auburn will be a dangerous opponent until the clock fully runs out.
In addition to simply wanting to beat the Bulldogs, Alabama was looking at Mississippi State as somewhat of a tune-up. But QB Dak Prescott’s absence from the game turned the Bulldogs into a Bob Petrino-era Arkansas team, more so than a surrogate for Auburn’s option offense. Still, MSU is much like Auburn in many ways. The Bulldog defensive line shares a lot of qualities with the Auburn line. The secondary has some athletes, but has been victimized at times this year. Offensively, both teams have solid running backs, questionable receivers and erratic quarterbacks, to go along with an offensive line capable of controlling the point of attack.
What Alabama should take away from this game, most of all, is that a similar effort in two weeks will probably result in a loss. Auburn is better than most Alabama fans care to admit, and with momentum being one of the prime components of college football, the Tigers are suddenly much more dangerous than they were a month ago – or than they would have been had Georgia not choked away the game Saturday.
On the other hand, Auburn hasn’t faced a team like Alabama yet. The Iron Bowl will thus be a matchup on one team that should have lost, and another team that showed vulnerability Saturday tempered by the ability to rise above it.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mississippi State
1. While physical, MSU defensive line couldn’t hold back Alabama OL forever. The amount of time it took Alabama to assert itself on the offensive line was roughly one quarter. T.J. Yeldon amassed 160 yards on 24 carries (6.7 avg.), with very little of it coming before the second quarter. Kaleb Eulls, who had been quiet for much of the 2013 season, had his breakout game against Alabama. While Eulls finished with just one tackle for loss, he affected Alabama’s play-calling and it was clear from the first quarter of play that the Tide didn’t expect to have to spend so much attention on him. Eulls won his one-on-one matchups (typically against LG Arie Kouandjio) early in the game, but Alabama finally did to State what it has done to most all other opponents this season – wear them down like a grindstone. For much of the second and third quarters, Alabama took full control of the point of attack. The four turnovers made things look worse than they actually were.
2. McCarron was the steadying force. As mentioned before, one of McCarron’s interceptions probably wasn’t an interception at all. There was arguably pass interference on the play before the interception, and Taveze Calhoun was almost certainly out of bounds. The booth didn’t ask for a review, however, and Nick Saban erred in not challenging the call. While Alabama suffered no ill effects from the play – the Tide got the ball back, then drove for a touchdown on the subsequent possession – it shouldn’t have come to that. McCarron’s second pick was mostly his own error, although a breakdown in protection on the right side of the line didn’t help. Mississippi State was the first team since Colorado State to get any kind of consistent penetration against Alabama, and McCarron did a good job considering he was constantly moving around in the pocket. Alabama did a good job of keeping STAT (snap-to-affect-time) numbers reasonable, and McCarron was sacked only once.
3. Ball security miscues are now officially a trend. You can only ignore the truth for so long. T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake both have issues with ball security, and Alabama can ill afford it down the stretch. There’s not much else to say about it. Drake’s fumble in particular could have been a killer, had Bulldog QB Tyler Russell not already been knocked out of the game. Credit the Alabama defense for digging the backs out, but Alabama has to find a way to stop it from happening in the first place.
4. Defensive line quickly becoming one of the best in the Saban era. A’Shawn Robinson’s development by itself is cause for celebration, but the work of Ed Stinson, Jeoffrey Pagan, Brandon Ivory, Darren Lake and Jonathan Allen is notable as well. The one caveat is that Pagan apparently has never met a face mask that wasn’t a perfect fit for his hand, but where the game turned for Alabama from a defensive standpoint was when MSU found out it couldn’t move the ball on the ground. LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson combined for 16 carries for 42 yards (2.6 avg.), which forced the game into the hands of Russell and a mediocre wide receiver corps. Aside from tight end Malcolm Johnson (6 catches, 84 yards, 14.0 avg.), no Bulldog skill player even remotely hurt Alabama.
5. Special teams broke completely for Alabama. Dan Mullen over-thought the issue, not just in his attempts to directionally punt away from Christion Jones, but in the placekicking decisions. Despite Devon Bell’s struggles, he’s the best option the Bulldogs have at kicker. Yet Mullen went with Evan Sobiesk, who missed a 23-yard chip shot and almost missed the PAT on the Bulldogs’ lone touchdown. Punter Baker Swedenburg seemed to be more concerned with extra rugby steps, and he came within a centimeter at most of having Kevin Norwood stuff a punt back in his face. Jameon Lewis had possibly the worst performance by a return man in recent SEC history – certainly one of the worst for a guy who didn’t actually fumble the ball or muff a catch. Alabama’s coverage teams returned to form after back-to-back struggles against Tennessee and LSU.
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