Mississippi State QB Will Rogers finished the night with 300 yards passing. Mississippi State finished the night with 299 yards total offense.
Mike Leach is no stranger to weird numbers and strange metrics. He’s made a career off things like wide splits in the offensive line, running backs who catch more than run, and “playbooks” that can fit front-and-back on a standard index card.
So chalk another one up to the Leach era of college football coaching, because Alabama let Rogers throw for 300 empty yards – no touchdowns, 3 interceptions – and then held the Bulldog offense to minus-1 yard of rushing to keep the total offense tally under three bills.
This is what Bama looks like when it focuses. And it’s why the Texas A&M loss of a week ago might end up being a hidden blessing to this team, if it manages to avoid a loss the rest of the way in.
Linebacker Will Anderson stood at a podium this week and talked about accountability, as well as focus. He said the accountability would start with himself.
Anderson’s stat line against Mississippi State: 6 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 PBU.
Alabama’s offense overcame the nation’s ninth-ranked rushing defense to put up 195 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground. Quarterback Bryce Young added 348 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 28 attempts.
The efficient, focused, murderball-ing Crimson Tide was back a week after being humbled in College Station. So why did it ever have to come to this to get Alabama to understand what it takes to win?
To be fair to everyone – Alabama, Mississippi State, Texas A&M – the bigger fluke of the year was probably not Texas A&M upsetting Alabama, but rather Mississippi State upsetting Texas A&M the week before. With MSU’s running game little more than a distraction, Alabama’s defense was able to keep everything in front of it. Aside from a single pop-gun shot to a wide receiver who had managed to find a one-on-one matchup and make a good play on an underthrow, Mississippi State had no long passing game. Without running backs to really worry about, Alabama turned its front loose on a MSU offensive line that probably lost a lot of potential draft money after scouts get a look at the tape.
It also didn’t hurt at all that Alabama’s defensive line and linebackers played like a group with something to prove, and an early shot on Rogers’ shoulder had clear effects the rest of the game.
And perhaps most importantly, when Alabama was faced with the infrequent occurrence of adversity, it overcame. When WR Slade Bolden had a clear catch overturned by an SEC replay group that has been substandard in several games across the conference this year, the Tide simply picked up a first down on the next play and eventually scored a touchdown later in the drive, without much fuss.
Bama now gets a Tennessee team that has been an unexpected success story in 2021. The Volunteers are far from being a great team, but few expected Tennessee to show as much improvement as it has this year. The Vols play hard and have enough talent, and especially enough flexibility on offense, to suddenly make a respectable opponent.
The road to winning championships isn’t yet open, but Alabama did fill in a lot of the potholes with this performance. Now the question is, can they do it again for every remaining week in the season?
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mississippi State:
1. Bama’s safety play improved by leaps over A&M; personnel change also helped. Tonight showed why the play-action pass is so valued at the highest levels of football, and why RPOs have also become part of most teams’ base offense. Without threat of eye candy in the running game, Alabama was able to blitz from multiple angles and the defensive backs were mostly able to play facing the quarterback. The changes most helped Alabama’s safeties, who collectively played terrible football a week ago.
Jordan Battle ended up having probably the best game following a worst game for an Alabama player since probably some time during Reggie Myles’ tenure in the early 2000s. Daniel Wright took over for DeMarcco Hellams at free safety, not a tremendous surprise given MSU’s lack of a running game but still something that wasn’t publicly announced coming into the night. Wright’s better pure ball skills may have unintentionally sent more plays Battle’s way, and he responded with a pair on interceptions, including a pick six.
Alabama’s corners gave up more receptions than usual but other than one outlier, the deep pass that went against Jalyn Armour-Davis, they kept the throws in front of them, and Josh Jobe recorded an interception. This was a great bounceback performance from a unit that badly needed it.
2. MSU OL got thoroughly abused by Alabama’s defensive front. Tackle play has been a problem for Mike Leach ever since he arrived in Starkville. Having Alabama transfer Scott Lashley finally healthy in 2021 was supposed to fix it, but Lashley was no match for Will Anderson. Anderson abused Lashley, who will have to explain away this performance once next April’s NFL Draft rolls around. But Lashley was not the only problem by far.
MSU uses wide splits along its offensive line; the trick is that the interior three OL must recognize blitz pathways early in the play and then be able to get over to help either the tackle or the center if the play flows in that direction. To put it gently, MSU did not do these things. Alabama recorded 7 sacks, 2 QB hurries, and 1 of UA’s 2 PBUs came from a down lineman (Anderson again). And then there was the case of Mississippi State’s missing running game. Bulldog RBs combined for 10 carries for 40 yards, which were negated by Rogers’ 41 yards lost to sacks.
Alabama LB Henry To’o To’o also deserves an attaboy here for being a big part of how Alabama finally adjusted to stop the middle tunnel screen to the running back in the second half, and MSU couldn’t compensate for the change. To’o To’o finished with 13 tackles, which led the team, as well as a sack and another for a loss.
3. Better play from Alabama’s offensive tackles, especially in the second half, was a factor. Chris Owens had a nice recovery from a game so bad it nearly cost him his starting job. Most of the pressure that Bryce Young faced Saturday night was from middle in, rather than edge pressure through either Owens or Evan Neal. There is still work to be done – Young was sacked twice and pressured several other times, as the middle of the Bama line was just average in pass protection – but tonight’s performance will at least settle the boo birds for awhile. Also, Alabama’s 195 yards and 2 touchdowns rushing, at nearly 5 yards per clip, was the result of holes that appeared almost equally left to right across the line; Alabama didn’t have to run behind a specific lineman to be successful.
4. Bama’s receivers, for the most part, played much better than they did a week ago. John Metchie in particular stepped up, recording 7 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. He got open consistently against a pair of good cornerbacks, and did so in several clutch situations.
Alabama needs Metchie to play at this level week in and week out; he’s the most physical of the A-group and Bryce Young clearly looks for him when the chips are down. Slade Bolden had just 2 catches for 9 yards, but he also had another catch wrongly taken from him by official replay.
Jameson Williams ran away for another long touchdown, and then there was the coming-out party of Traeshon Holden, who finished with 3 catches for 70 yards and a score. Holden is an intriguing prospect; he is fast, big and can jump out of the building, but his hands up to this point have been a problem spot. He seems to play with aggression and doesn’t take plays off, so if this game was an indication of what’s to come, Alabama just found the outside receiver it has lacked who can rotate with Williams and Metchie.
5. Young’s poise and ability to put the Texas A&M loss behind him bode well for the future. This may have been Young’s best game to date. He didn’t throw any passes too low, he managed the game well and he picked his running spots. He came within an inch of a tightrope touchdown run and only made one clearly bad choice all night, passing up an open Brian Robinson out of the backfield in the third quarter and instead trying to hit a well-covered John Metchie a few yards further downfield; Robinson could have easily run past where Metchie was and made a first down.
The best part of this is how quickly Young got over the loss at College Station, a loss in which was certainly not his fault completely, but one that he did unquestionably contribute to. This was a veteran game tonight played by a guy who doesn’t deserve to wear the veteran tag just yet.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN