While Alabama recorded its second consecutive shutout of a ranked SEC opponent, the struggles the Bama offense endured against Mississippi State showed just how important the health of one or two key individuals is to Bama’s 2018 season – especially when it comes to the ability to dominate an opponent.
The Mississippi State game was always one to circle this year, thanks to a veteran Bulldog team with good lines, linebackers and a solid senior quarterback. The game came up on the schedule immediately following an LSU game that is always physical, no matter the outcome. And for good measure, two of the Alabama offense’s most key personnel – QB Tua Tagovailoa, and LG Deonte Brown, who has helped solidify the line play in recent weeks – found themselves on the training table for most or all of the second half.
This game became an object lesson in how tenuous dominance can be. Alabama dominated MSU insofar as the final score was lopsided, but Bama basically staked itself to a 14-point lead and struggled to build it any further. Were it not for key penalties against the Bulldogs and a couple of critical errors by its receiver corps in regard to dropped passes, Alabama would probably have been nursing a 7- to 10-point lead late in the game. But as former coach Gene Stallings used to put it, teams play 60 minutes for the chance to make a handful of big plays that decide the outcome of the game, and Alabama was on the right side of every single one of those plays.
Alabama, for once, found itself on the sunny side of most of the questionable officials’ calls in a game. Mississippi State was hit for seven penalties, Alabama zero – and the Bulldogs had two touchdowns wiped out in the same drive due to a pair of calls that probably are going to get this officiating crew a follow-up call from Birmingham early next week.
A block in the back call wiped out the first score. On replay, it appeared the Bulldog blocker, wideout Deddrick Thomas, did not actually hit Alabama’s Shyheim Carter, but he did over-sell his innocence, widely opening his arms and claiming no contact before the play was even over, and in the process, got flagged for what the official assumed he did. Sometimes, the way to bring the most suspicion upon oneself is to act unnaturally. And thus, the controversial flag flew.
Two snaps later, another touchdown was wiped out by a delay of game flag that never should have been thrown. The reason it shouldn’t have been thrown was the MSU sideline official missed seeing Bulldog head coach Joe Moorhead calling for a timeout with the 25-second clock still showing 2 or 3 seconds left. The next play resulted in a sack, and then kicker Jace Christmann pulled a 41-yard field goal attempt wide left. The Bulldogs never challenged again.
With The Citadel coming up next week, Alabama has to decide whether to sit Tua Tagovailoa in preparation for Auburn or not. If Jalen Hurts was healthy, it would be an easy call. With Mac Jones currently sitting in the backup slot, the choice if more difficult. Jones has looked like the rookie he is in most of his appearances this year, and even The Citadel – a 4-5 FCS team that has been competitive in all its games thus far, but not dominating in any – could make life difficult for awhile. Deonte Brown almost certainly won’t play, but his absence creates another issue: whether Alabama keeps the same lineup on the field it did after Brown went down against MSU, or shakes things up again looking for a better fit.
What Alabama can’t afford to do is get Tagovailoa hurt worse heading into games against Auburn and Georgia. LSU and Mississippi State both clearly targeted Tagovailoa’s knees, and Auburn will most certainly do the same. Without Tagovailoa, Alabama would go into the playoffs decidedly second fiddle to a Clemson team that has looked very strong since changing quarterbacks itself a couple months back.
Alabama did what it had to do against Mississippi State. There were some teachable moments coming out of this game. It’s not time to worry about Alabama’s ultimate fate, but it is time to protect assets as much as possible with The Citadel on the horizon.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mississippi State:
1. Bama OL didn’t pass all its tests, Tide was tipping its calls, and Brown’s injury looms large. Alabama had trouble dealing with Mississippi State edge pressure, especially from LBs and DBs coming on blitzes. The greater concern, though, was run blocking after a fine start that saw Alabama mostly have its way with the Bulldogs on the first two Tide drives. Alabama rolled up 156 yards on 22 plays on its first two drives, gashing the Bulldog defensive front. Then, a couple of things happened: OL Deonte Brown left with a turf toe injury, and Mississippi State made a series of effective adjustments – especially after the half – that seemed to key on tells from Alabama’s personnel.
Alabama would do well to self-scout itself to death this week and figure out what those tells were, because Auburn’s defense is similar to Mississippi State’s and can exploit the same weaknesses. As for Brown, Lester Cotton replaced him, and did a good job in pass protection, but Alabama’s run blocking on the left side all but disappeared. Alabama has other veteran personnel available, not the least of which is popular senior Josh Casher, and it will be interesting to see if the Tide experiments with alignments this week that don’t include Cotton. Bama knows what it has with Cotton, and it’s more or less the same concerns that led to Brown replacing him in the starting lineup in the first place. The put it succinctly, the level of line play Alabama showed in the second, third and fourth quarters isn’t good enough to beat Clemson.
2. Tua probably had his worst game, mentally, since coming to Alabama. The offensive line may have struggled at times, but Tagovailoa didn’t do himself any favors by refusing to throw balls away when no one was open. It’s admirable for a quarterback to stand in the pocket and try to make the impossible happen, but you have to pick your spots. Up 21 against Mississippi State isn’t the right spot. Tagovailoa was slow to read coverage in a couple of occasions, missed seeing MSU’s Willie Gay on the interception, and exposed himself to big hits instead of bailing out on the play when the receivers were covered.
Ever since the knee injury, Tagovailoa has appeared somewhat distracted, and understandably so, but with an offensive line down one of its most effective members, and the score being what it was, Tua would have served himself better to pass on trying to be a hero. Sometimes a hero isn’t needed. Sometimes, just a competent manager is what’s needed. There was too much of the (attempted) first and not nearly enough of the second on display Saturday afternoon. The good news is Bama can expect much better results in two weeks when he’s healthier.
3. Bama’s special teams may have turned the game, and Bernier’s punting was the key to it. Mike Bernier again averaged less than 40 yards per kick, but a perfectly-executed pooch punt in the first quarter and a key, 43-yard punt out of his own territory when Alabama absolutely had to have it were key plays in this game. And then, of course, there was the punt Deddrick Thomas fumbled at a time Mississippi State was attempting to show life. Bernier’s punts tend to have a unique rotation profile, and the one Thomas fumbled had sort of turned over sideways. It was not what punt returners are accustomed to fielding, and probably played a part in the muff.
Alabama also, unexpectedly, won the battle of placekickers, as MSU’s Jace Christmann missed a rare attempt at a makeable kick, while Bama’s Joseph Bulovas nailed a 49-yarder to ice the game. There is no truth to the rumors that flying pigs have disrupted air traffic over Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport. But there is cause to congratulate Bama’s kickers for a job well done.
4. Bama secondary play continues to excel; Jared Mayden took a big step up. Even with the injury to Trevon Diggs, Alabama’s secondary has jelled around the core group of Patrick Surtain II, Saivion Smith, Xavier McKinney, Deionte Thompson and Shyheim Carter. You can now add dimeback Jared Mayden to the list; Mayden had 3 tackles in this game, two of which were as impactful as tackles can get. His sack of State QB Nick Fitzgerald on a sellout blitz late in the first half helped keep the Bulldogs off the scoreboard, and a crucial tackle of WR Deddrick Thomas to set up a fourth down early in the fourth quarter killed a Bulldog drive. Carter, too, had a nice game, to include triggering a fourth down early in the game when he blew up a called delay RPO, staying with his man and forcing Fitzgerald to run the ball directly into a wall of Bama tacklers.
We expected improvement throughout the season just from the standpoint that Alabama’s secondary is one of the most athletic secondaries ever put on a collegiate field, but two consecutive shutouts with flawless secondary play in each was beyond those expectations. With Mayden finally getting comfortable in his role, opposing teams have a lot to worry about. Maybe too much to worry about.
5. As predicted, MSU’s wide receivers proved to be the gift that just kept giving. Talk about having your mistakes magnified on the big stage. It seemed like every time Mississippi State had an open play against Alabama’s secondary, a receiver cut a route short or dropped a pass. There was also the disputed block-in-the-back call that went against … yep, WR Deddrick Thomas. Thomas also fumbled the punt that set up Alabama’s third touchdown late in the second quarter. Many observers have discounted QB Nick Fitzgerald’s abilities due to his low completion percentage; perhaps some of that is due to the guys he’s throwing the ball to. Fitzgerald’s accuracy was just fine in this game; State just didn’t finish enough plays. If the Bulldogs want to take the next step forward as a program, turning up the dial in wideout recruiting should be one of the first moves the coaching staff makes.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN