The problems inherent in the changeover from Joe Moorhead’s veer-based offense to Mike Leach’s air raid attack had been evident for weeks, but few people expected a shutout from an Alabama defense that had been maligned by fans and analysts.
Still, Alabama’s defense pitched all zeroes Saturday against the Bulldogs, shutting down the Mississippi State offense with hard-hitting play from all angles, especially a defensive front that had its way with a Bulldog offensive line beset by injuries and poor recruiting fits for the scheme Leach likes to run.
While DeVonta Smith was busy making history at wide receiver, even his four-touchdown performance played second fiddle to Alabama’s defensive performance, which started with a fantastic scheme from Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Pete Golding and was executed to perfection by the players. Onlookers watched a fantastic, precise and violent ballet.
Mike Leach has been around this particular block enough to know that his first-year results aren’t going to impress anyone. The air raid demands a kind of player he doesn’t really have at the moment. That fact was perhaps no clearer than in an evaluation of Leach’s offensive line, which was chewed up by mostly a three-man Alabama rush for the entirety of the game. When Alabama chose to bring a fourth rusher, more often than not MSU’s already poor performance up front disintegrated into chaos.
It didn’t help that the Bulldog receivers looked befuddled going against Alabama’s secondary, ball carriers appeared tentative, and Saban and Golding looked to have had Leach’s number from the outset. This was illustrated early on when Alabama saw something in the MSU personnel it recognized, rushed NT D.J. Dale (who barely played at all in this game) onto the field at the last second – and then just as Saban and Golding predicted, MSU ran the ball into Dale’s A-gap, with Dale shutting the play down in the backfield.
When a team’s offensive tells are that clear, an upset isn’t going to be possible. Neither, it would turn out, would be simply holding the margin to a respectable figure. Even when Mississippi State made a late defensive stop against Alabama’s second-team offense, the defense wrote its final signature across the win with a pick-six from Patrick Surtain to make the final score 41-0 in a game that was not nearly even that close.
How much weight one applies to this game is sort of dependent on how much one believes Mike Leach’s Bulldogs are analogous to other, better teams. It’s a splash of cold water, somewhat, to note that there isn’t another air raid team on the schedule, including anyone Alabama might see in the College Football Playoff. Mississippi State is somewhat of a odd duck these days.
But the fundamental reasons Alabama won this game – stellar line play, better tackling, more confidence on defense – could carry over. And Alabama will now get a week off to polish its game before the stretch run of LSU, Auburn and a resurgent Arkansas team appear on the docket.
1. Defensive scheme was stifling and the players confident, plus tackling was on-point. Alabama apparently had been working on the MSU game plan for multiple weeks, according to Nick Saban, but Alabama could just as easily have copied and pasted any one of the plans everyone on the Mississippi State schedule (other than LSU) had used.
Mike Leach’s attack is based around crossing routes and getting running backs into the flats as receivers, with the goal of the offensive game plan being to use short passes to emulate runs. If teams play man-to-man against it, the quarterback simply has to find the receiver running free, and there will be as many as five of those on any given snap.
Against zone defense, due to lack of a credible threat the run the ball off an RPO (which Leach eschews as a general rule), Leach’s teams have a much harder time moving the ball. Alabama looked like it had drawn this defense up months ago and spent time repping it ever since. But the biggest change from previous weeks was tackling. To be fair, a lot of Alabama’s good tackling was the result of Mississippi State’s generally unimpressive wide receivers. The best offensive players MSU had were in the offensive backfield, which is not Leach’s go-to option.
The biggest need going forward for the Bulldogs will be to improve the talent across the board at receiver. They made Bama tacklers’ jobs easier, and Alabama cashed in. Still, the amount of Alabama’s preparation, both in scheme and execution, was the ultimate key.
2. Bama DL flat-out abused the MSU offensive line. Alabama got consistent pressure with basically a three-man front all night. Until he got banged up late in the game, Phidarian Mathis, playing nose in place of the more passing-game-limited D.J. Dale, was destroying the interior of the Bulldog offensive line on virtually every snap. Mathis was only credited with 2 tackles, but one of them was a sack, and he also recorded 2 PBUs and a QB hurry. He also opened up opportunities for Alabama’s defensive ends when Bama went to a four-man front, which indirectly led to Will Anderson Jr. recording 5 tackles, two of them for loss, from his Jack linebacker spot.
True freshman Tim Smith was also disruptive in limited action, forcing a fumble and recovering it from RB Jo’quavious Marks on a play that would ultimately knock Marks out of the game. Christian Barmore, Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe also made an impact. Alabama had to win this battle without over-committing resources to get pressure on the quarterback, and did just that.
3. Defensive backs stepped up when it counted. Bama played two true freshman in key roles for most of the night, with Malachi Moore and Brian Branch asked to multitask as both RB spies as well as cover most of Mississippi State’s inside routes. The result? Moore and Branch ranked first and second in tackles for the night, Moore with 8 and Branch with 7, and both players broke up 2 passes each. Moore continues to show excellent instincts, making plays behind the line of scrimmage and shutting down much of MSU’s outside run game. Branch continues to display great ball skills.
Both players displayed sure-handed tackling skills Saturday, too. Unlike most other opponents this year, Mississippi State didn’t show a hesitation to throw at cornerbacks Josh Jobe and Patrick Surtain, but the results indicated that the Bulldogs probably should have hesitated. Jobe continues to be a black hole for flying footballs due to his physical aggressiveness, while Surtain’s name appears on the scoring sheet as a result of a fantastic play on the ball that resulted in a pick-six of backup quarterback Will Rogers.
And here’s the stat of the night: Alabama’s secondary held Mississippi State quarterbacks to 3.4 yards per attempt, as great an example of offensive futility as you’ll ever see.
4. DeVonta Smith’s night was overshadowed by the defense; it showed two things. One, Smith is the best route-runner in football right now. Two, if something happens to him, Alabama’s downfield passing game is in trouble. As good as QB Mac Jones has been – and he was strong again tonight, against a quality defense, going 24 for 31 (77.4%) for 291 yards and the 4 touchdowns to Smith – John Metchie III and Slade Bolden were held to 6 catches for 38 yards.
Smith, though, used his veteran skills to school Bulldog cornerbacks, and Jones’ timing was impeccable, getting the ball to him just as he came out of breaks. Smith tied Amari Cooper’s school record for career touchdown receptions, and if he stays healthy the rest of the way in, there’s no telling where he’ll set the final number.
Nobody on Alabama’s future schedule really wants to think about having to cover Smith, but Alabama also needs Bolden and Metchie to continue to develop so that Smith doesn’t become an automatic double-team.
5. Alabama’s continued success on offense is a testament to its design and innovation. It’s saying something when a 499-yard tonight constitutes an “off-night” but that’s what we’ve gotten used to out of Steve Sarkisian and the offensive assistant staff. The design of the offense – along with the play of the offensive line, in itself a testament to line coach Kyle Flood’s hard-nosed style – has allowed Alabama to find ways to advance in the modern era.
Alabama may not have recorded a rushing touchdown Saturday night, but it still averaged 5.2 yards per carry for more than 200 total yards on the ground, keeping Mississippi State’s defense off-balance. Alabama’s defense never hard to worry about multiple modes of attack from Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs spent much of the evening chasing their tails.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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