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MSU wrap-up: Defense reverses course, offense flounders in a night of mixed messages

Long before Mississippi State scored on the game’s last play to avoid the embarrassment of seeing its potent offense shut out, Alabama fans either had plenty to be excited about – or plenty to worry about, depending on one’s point of view.

Bouncing back from a loss, especially one to a rival as hated as Tennessee, is always important. If Alabama had wanted to quickly remove itself from championship contention, all it would have needed to do is sleepwalk through this game and let Mississippi State and Will Rogers go up and down the field a few times. Many other opponents could have and have done exactly that.

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Instead, Alabama – especially the Alabama defense, which had been laid low by Josh Heupel, Jalin Hyatt and Hendon Hooker the week before – made a statement in this game. The defense sacked Rogers 4 times, broke up a staggering 15 pass attempts, recorded 5 QB hurries and held Rogers to 231 yards on a whopping 60 throws for an average of 3.9 yards per attempt. That is the very definition of pass efficiency defense.

On the other hand, the offense, which had matched Tennessee blow-for-blow last week and actually outgained the Volunteers in the final scorebook, had no obvious plan in this game. Alabama ran for 29 yards on 27 attempts against one of the poorest run defenses in the SEC. Bryce Young again carried Alabama’s offense on his back, throwing for more yards than MSU’s Rogers on about half the attempts.

Nick Saban was predictably happy in his postgame media address. Saban has done this before: lose a game one week, and lather praise onto the team the next week if it wins. He (correctly, in our opinion) realizes that the mindset of the team is of paramount importance at the moment, because for those who watched any of the LSU-Ole Miss game that preceded this one, it’s clear that Alabama now has two dangerous opponents on its closing schedule, not just one. And that’s not including its biggest rival of all, Auburn.

The most important thing in this game, besides just winning it outright, was to fix some of the critical errors that popped up last week in Knoxville. To that end, Alabama did it. Mississippi State outrushed Alabama, but it was by a count of 62-29. Rogers, a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate at times this year, was made to look very average at best and subpar at worst. Best yet, Alabama’s defensive gameplan was imaginative, took a lot of chances, and served notice to offensive juggernauts like Ole Miss that Saban might be an old dog, but his bag of tricks is still very much intact.

However, is this a championship-grade team or not? That’s both a personnel question and a question of makeup. You won’t find many opposing coaches who wouldn’t trade rosters with Alabama, but it’s not unfair to say there are other teams out there that are extremely competitive with Alabama even with inferior rosters – Tennessee is Example A-1 on that list.

Saban’s relatively cheery demeanor in the postgame press conference is also probably due to the fact that Alabama has made it to its off-week with most of its playmakers in good health, just one loss on the docket, and a lot of time to fix what may be ailing the team before the stretch run kicks in. However, that’s only relevant if Saban can actually fix what needs fixing. Go to Baton Rouge in two weeks and take the offense from this game and the defense from the Tennessee game with you, and you’ll probably come back to Tuscaloosa on your shield.

We’ll get more into it in the breakdown below, but this game was both uplifting and frustrating. It may have been fitting that on a night where Gene Stallings and the 1992 National Championship team were honored, that Alabama found a way to import both the ’92 defense and offense for one last cruise around the block. It’s worth remembering that in addition to a lot of lopsided wins that season, Alabama also got to a championship by beating Vanderbilt 25-8, Southern Miss 17-10 and Louisiana Tech 13-0. Every win doesn’t have to come by a score of 56-7 while a fireworks display explodes overhead.

But for the 2022 team, which is built on fireworks, a few bottle rockets Saturday night sure would have been nice.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Mississippi State:

1. CB Eli Ricks clearly threw off Mike Leach’s gameplan and he played a near-flawless game. Imagine you’re Will Rogers, and you come into this game knowing you’re probably not going to try to throw over Kool-Aid McKinstry. So you start throwing to the other side and find … a desperate-to-break-out Eli Ricks playing like his hair is on fire? That’s the fate that befell Rogers and Leach, and Ricks more than stepped up to the challenge. Alabama has tried Khyree Jackson and Terrion Arnold at that spot, each with mostly good results all things considered, but Ricks took it to another level Saturday. Ricks recorded only 2 tackles – but that’s because no one was catching anything on his side. He broke up 4 passes by himself, which is a gaudy total.

Once Leach threw up his hands in surrender, Rogers started going at McKinstry in the second half and all Kool-Aid did was tie Ricks with 4 PBUs himself. It was clear the Bulldogs were expecting a much more accommodating attitude from Alabama’s corners, but they sure didn’t get one. Ricks allowed a single completion for a medium-length gain and fought receivers for balls all night. Working against LSU’s and Ole Miss’ receivers will be more of a test, as both units are superior to Mississippi State’s group, but suddenly we like the Bama defense’s chances a lot more than a week ago.

2. Defense was challenged by missing personnel but schemed around the holes and may have found a new DL or two. Just prior to the game, Alabama announced that starting DLs D.J. Dale and Jaheim Oatis would miss the game, along with co-starter at weakside linebacker, Deontae Lawson, and primary MLB backup and key special teamer Kendrick Blackshire. Replacing Lawson and Blackshire proved relatively easy, as Alabama was going to be in a dime look most of the night anyway. Jaylen Moody and Dallas Turner covered the hole left by Lawson’s absence.

The bigger story, though, was definitely the defensive line, as Alabama opened in a sub front with Will Anderson playing defensive end, a position he stayed at most of the night. Tim Smith and Byron Young opened the game as the interior tackles, with Jamil Burroughs, Jah-Marien Latham and Damon Payne Jr. rotating in. Burroughs was the breakthrough player of the three, recording 5 total tackles, 0.5 sacks and a QB hurry. Payne, though, was the biggest surprise of all, given he had logged no snaps this year outside of trash time. He recorded 3 unassisted tackles and was hard to move inside.

Coming off the Tennessee performance, it was imperative Alabama’s defensive line made steps forward, and they certainly appeared to do so. It’s unlikely Alabama will get both Oatis and Dale back for LSU, and Justin Eboigbe remains out of the picture with a troubling neck injury, so this was a preview of the personnel groupings for the stretch run. Burroughs certainly took advantage of his chances, something doubly important for him given that Smith has been slow to develop his game in 2022.

Also of note here is one move Alabama didn’t make: safety DeMarcco Hellams retained his starting high safety spot and bounced back from a horrible Tennessee game to thrive against the Bulldogs. His break-up of a pass on fourth down on MSU’s initial drive was one of the keys to the game.

3. Offensive playcalling and design was lacking. The execution wasn’t much better. Alabama didn’t really have a plan to deal with an unexpectedly tough MSU rush defense, which we say with tongue embedded in cheek because it has been anything but tough so far in 2022. Alabama continues a trend under Bill O’Brien of being dangerous when it can stay on script, but when Bama needs to adjust in-game, it hasn’t always done a good job of it. After a solid, if unspectacular first half, Alabama’s production ground to a halt in the third quarter, then more or less coasted across the finish line in the fourth.

It took O’Brien far too long to adjust to State’s blitz pressures and call quick-hitting plays to take advantage of the matchups. In O’Brien’s defense, though, when he did have the right call on in those situations, the execution often stunk. Bama’s best playcall ended up being “watch Bryce Young run around for 15 seconds and then chuck it somewhere.” In doing so, Young exposed himself to several big hits, and while those hits were flagged more often this week for roughing the passer, they were still felt.

This ended up being one of the most frustrating offensive performances (that still resulted in an Alabama win) to watch in recent years, triggered mainly by a running game that flopped and floundered all night and never really got going.

4. Personnel changes on offense didn’t have quite the same effect as the ones on defense. The offensive line was suffering from the loss of C Seth McLaughlin, who was hurt at the end of the Tennessee game. His replacement, Darrian Dalcourt, had the highlight block of the night, decleating the Mississippi State nosetackle on JoJo Earle’s touchdown catch, but Alabama’s struggles in running the football began with an offensive line that couldn’t keep lanes clean.

Alabama benched WR Traeshon Holden and limited Kobe Prentice from the outset, choosing instead to give Earle more snaps and to start Isaiah Bond as an outside receiver. Bond was injured on a play on which targeting was called, and Holden caught two key passes, including one for a touchdown, in relief of Bond. Tyler Harrell finally got some playing time, but it was only at the end when Jalen Milroe was in the game at quarterback. Amari Niblack got only a handful of snaps at tight end. Granted, the problem at Tennessee wasn’t necessarily the offense, but it still doesn’t look like Alabama has the right grouping on the field at receiver.

Jermaine Burton had a good game; we’d like to see more from Harrell – he caught a pass from Milroe late and appears to have good speed and some wiggle – and Holden is the best Alabama has at breaking off a route to help a scrambling quarterback. He just has to catch the ball with consistency.

5. A nice rebound from PK Will Reichard eases concerns in the kicking game. But what of KO coverage? Suddenly, kickoff coverage may be an issue, and it started almost precisely at the point where Alabama lost LB Demouy Kennedy for the year with a major knee injury. Kendrick Blackshire was also unavailable for this game, which meant that Alabama was leaning hard on Ian Jackson and needed others to step up. Reichard was an automatic touchback for a while, but lately has begun kicking off about 5 yards shorter on most attempts.

Coverage will come into play down the stretch and Alabama needs to be ready for it. However, Reichard hit three key field goals in this game, and the first of those, a 50-yarder, had to be huge from a confidence-boosting standpoint. We’re eager to see Reichard return to his usual, automatic self, and we’re sure he’s ready for it, too.

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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