By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 12, 2017
For three quarters, everything was pointing to a Mississippi State upset victory over Alabama. Alabama’s injuries at inside linebacker had finally caught up with the Crimson Tide, the defense couldn’t get off the field on third down and the Alabama offense was boom/bust, scoring quickly at times but not able to sustain drives.
And then this happened: 10 carries, 26 yards, 3 first downs, 3-for-6 passing, 72 yards, 2 first downs, 1 touchdown.
Alabama’s Jalen Hurts accounted for nearly 100 total yards on his own in the fourth quarter (and the total would have been more than 100, if college football didn’t take sack yardage down from rushing totals), led two touchdown drives and another drive that ended when Andy Pappanastos’ field goal attempt bounced off the left upright. More or less, Hurts did the same thing to Mississippi State that he did to Clemson in last year’s national championship game, except this time the defense held the opposition out of the end zone in the end.
If Hurts’ detractors had any ammunition left in their bag of criticisms, they lost it tonight. Hurts cemented why he’s not only Alabama’s current starter, but also why he’s threatening to become one of the most prolific comeback QBs in Crimson Tide history. His unflappable nature, grace under pressure and dual-threat capabilities make him a defense’s worst nightmare in a two-minute drill.
Alabama is fortunate to have Hurts calling the signals, because without him and his ability to take over games late, Alabama would probably have left Starkville a loser. Mississippi State looked like the better team for most of three quarters, controlled the line of scrimmage and seemingly ran the ball at will. Despite a gameplan affected by a WR corps severely gimped by multiple injuries, Dan Mullen fashioned an attack that took advantage of Nick Fitzgerald’s running ability, a deep running back group and an offensive line that consistently opened up running lanes.
For the first three quarters, that is.
Once the fourth quarter came about, Alabama returned to its old self, as did the Bulldogs. Alabama ran 26 plays in the fourth quarter and gained 207 yards. Beginning with the drive after the field goal that put them up 24-17 (and which started in the third quarter), the Bulldogs ran 12 plays and amassed only 48 yards.
Moreover, Alabama seemed to be recharged by the break between the third and fourth quarters. Mississippi State had driven 55 yards down to Bama’s 9-yard line and was threatening to go in for another touchdown, but coming out of the quarter break, Alabama held MSU to a 1-yard run, an incomplete pass and a field goal. After the ensuing Alabama drive, a 10-play, 82-yard drive that ended in the tying touchdown (and just as importantly, burned 4:24 off the clock), Alabama’s defense picked the right time to finally come up big. The Bulldogs never really challenged again until getting two Hail Mary shots as time ran down.
If anything, this game had all the markings of a classic trap game already, and then Alabama brought a depleted linebacker group to the party. There was no question the losses of Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson were felt in this game. And after watching Auburn dismantle Georgia earlier in the day, with a great deal of the damage done on the ground, Alabama’s future prospects suddenly don’t look as bright. A loss to Auburn in two weeks would send the Tigers to Atlanta and probably eliminate Alabama from the College Football Playoff. At the very least, it would put Alabama’s fate in the hands of a committee under pressure to finally leave the SEC out of the party, especially an Alabama team that wasn’t a conference champion, or even a participant in its conference’s championship game.
For now, the focus is on healing up. Mercer comes to town next week, and Alabama will almost certainly use it as a scrimmage. Alabama must identify a second (and preferably third, and fourth) inside linebacker it can trust, it needs to get the defensive line and secondary healthy, and continue to work on continuity in its offensive game-planning, although at this point in the season the Tide is pretty much dancing with what got it here.
The Bulldogs threw everything but the kitchen sink at Alabama; the Crimson Tide survived and advanced, and that’s all that really matters at this point.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mississippi State:
1. It’s not just about results for Hurts; it’s also about his development. Sure, Alabama keeps winning with Hurts and his unique skill set, but it’s his passing abilities that are really starting to come around. The knock on Lane Kiffin toward the end of 2016 was that he was focused on his next job more than he was on the technical improvement in his young quarterback. The offensive staff as now led by Brian Daboll has done a better job of developing mechanics and teaching patience. Hurts stands in the pocket longer, allows routes to develop, and late against Mississippi State, made a couple of true hero throws that had to arrive quickly and in a tight window.
The eventual game-winning pass to DeVonta Smith was made in the face of an all-out blitz and thrown into combo coverage. The seam route to Calvin Ridley on the preceding play, a 3rd-and-15, was just as huge. It seems there’s not a situation out there big enough or dire enough to fluster Hurts, and as he continues to develop greater technical skills, he’s going to be hard to stop. Certainly, any debate over who Alabama’s starter should be evaporated Saturday night, at least.
2. Alabama’s ILB situation is Rashaan Evans and … Rashaan Evans. There is no way to say this politely: Alabama’s ILB play against Mississippi State was terrible. Keith Holcombe started the game alongside Evans, got pulled for true freshman Dylan Moses after an ugly start, but quickly replaced Moses again after Moses froze up under live fire. At one point, Moses looked like Carol Anne staring at the television in “Poltergeist.” Holcombe played better in the second half, but threatened to undo his improvement with one of the most egregious pass interference penalties on a Hail Mary attempt ever.
Not since Derrick Thomas singlehandedly extended the Alabama’s matchup with Ohio State in the defunct Kickoff Classic had an Alabama linebacker made such a gaffe at the end of the game. But Holcombe wasn’t alone in his struggles. In addition to Moses, Evans – who was the team’s leading tackler – overran some plays and got out of position on others as he cheated over in an attempt to help Holcombe. Alabama’s linebackers in general probably did the worst job of gap-filling since Nick Saban’s debut season in 2007.
Simply put, Alabama will be sunk if it can’t get this fixed soon. There is no way to fix it prior to the Final Four, unless the light comes on for Moses, or Alabama tries something else, like moving Jamey Mosley in from strongside linebacker and having it miraculously work out. Mack Wilson is set to return over Christmas, and there’s a good chance Alabama gets back at least one of its two missing outside linebackers, Christian Miller or Terrell Lewis, most likely Miller. But neither Lewis nor Miller can solve the issues at ILB, and tough games against Auburn and potentially Georgia could be too much to handle.
3. Mississippi State’s gameplan exposed flaws at LB, defensive backfield. Dan Mullen’s gameplan was almost perfect, and if Mississippi State’s wide receiver group wasn’t so decimated by injury, the outcome of this game would probably have been much different. Mullen and company targeted the Holcombe/Moses combination as expected, but it also apparently picked up on flaws in Alabama’s coverage schemes, and went after both Tony Brown and Hootie Jones. The plan worked for three quarters.
State worked Holcombe’s side in the running game, drawing Evans and at times the weakside end to overload, which gave MSU running backs unimpeded cutback lanes. In the passing game, MSU rolled routes into zones covered by Jones or Brown, who failed to respond to the challenge sufficiently. Jones especially seemed to lose aggressiveness in this game and was mainly seen cleaning up plays well downfield. Brown struggled to get off blocks and his tackling efforts were not up to standard.
It was good Alabama got to experience this in a game it eventually won, because the Crimson Tide will certainly see it again in the future. A personnel change this late probably isn’t in the cards, but with Alabama’s linebacker group simply trying to manage a difficult situation, the secondary has to be on point and no solution should be off the table. Still, Alabama held Mississippi State to 158 yards through the air and 6.6 yards per attempt, which is an admirable effort and one that looked better on paper than it felt in real time.
4. DL performance was suspect; OL suffers injury but is bailed out by Hassenauer. In its preview, TideFans.com projected both teams’ defensive lines to have an edge over the opposing offensive lines. In reality, it turned out to be the opposite. Alabama rolled up 444 yards on just 57 plays, an average of 7.8 yards per play. On the flip side, the Crimson Tide allowed 5 sacks.
After the first sack, LG Ross Pierschbacher exited the game with a high ankle sprain, replaced by J.C. Hassenauer. Hassenauer would later yield a sack as well, but for the most part he played with consistency, arguably more of it than Pierschbacher has shown some weeks. Hassenauer was especially effective pulling, and on combo blocks in pass protection, and mostly kept his man stoned unless MSU responded with an overload blitz.
Alabama’s backs weren’t as stellar in pickup pass protection as they have been for most of the year, with 2 of the 5 sacks coming at least in part because a RB didn’t execute his assignment. As for Mississippi State, the Bulldogs’ OL controlled the line of scrimmage for 3 quarters, and it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Alabama really shut things down up front. The Bulldogs ran for 172 yards on the night, but only 13 in the fourth quarter. Aeris Williams picked up 97 yards on 22 carries.
Most importantly, the Bulldog OL allowed only 1 sack in the game. In two weeks, Alabama will fact Jarrett Stidham at Auburn, and while Stidham isn’t the runner Fitzgerald is, he’s a better pure passer and this kind of pass rush won’t cut it. How much of Alabama’s woes were due to the turnover at linebacker is unknown. This issue is that Alabama’s defensive line is banged up as well, and Da’Shawn Hand is still clearly not at 100 percent. Alabama got good snaps from reserve end Quinnen Williams on Saturday, but Joshua Frazier seemed to struggle. Da’Ron Payne was forced to play too many snaps.
5. RB Josh Jacobs keyed fourth-quarter offense, while playcalling was erratic. It’s hard to find fault in Daboll’s plan when Alabama was averaging nearly 8 yards per snap, but the Tide either seemed to strike quickly for points, or falter quickly and send a tired defense back out onto the field too soon. Alabama’s rushing attack was too conservative early, and dealing with obvious blitz situations is still a sore point.
Once the fourth quarter rolled around, though, the tempo changed. Alabama has been marrying a New England Patriots-style spread passing attack to a zone-read backfield all year long, but needing points late to tie the game and eventually go ahead, Alabama doubled down on Jalen Hurts’ strengths. Alabama went back to full zone-read option at the QB position, mixing it with a steady diet (sometimes for multiple, consecutive snaps) of stretch-play runs to Josh Jacobs.
Jacobs may have gotten such a significant amount of work due to an injury to Bo Scarbrough, but in the end, how he got out there didn’t matter so much as what he did with the opportunity. Jacobs’ value as a receiver forced State to defend him differently, and in this case, “differently” meant without positive effect. Jacobs ended with 36 yards and a touchdown on 6 carries and 2 receptions for 18 yards.
Alabama’s go-ahead drive was effective but necessitated a 3rd-and-15 conversion on its penultimate play with 31 seconds remaining. Daboll finally responded to the blitz call by dialing up a quick slant to Calvin Ridley and then a skinny post to DaVonta Smith, and Hurts executed both to perfection. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective, and left Mississippi State wondering what happened to the upset win most people had come to think they were going to get.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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