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MSU wrap-up: Bama wins a strange one as it continues to seek its identity

Stats don’t always make sense, and Alabama’s 40-17 win over Mississippi State is a prime example of such. For a game that Alabama controlled almost from start to finish, the production on the field certainly didn’t match the numbers on the scoreboard.

But no matter how it happened, it was more than good enough.

Alabama really made its bones in this game on turnovers (the Crimson Tide collected three of them, and gave up none of its own) and fourth-down defense (Mississippi State went 0-for-3). Yet Alabama didn’t really stop the run – Mississippi State rushed for 154 yards on 35 carries, numbers very similar to Alabama’s – and the defense gave up two long drives marked by sloppy line and linebacker play. But when it counted, Alabama was able to put out its hand and say “no more” to a Bulldog team that was desperately trying to atone for last week’s high-production loss to South Carolina.

It isn’t clear what kind of team Alabama has yet, but if one were to look solely at this game for inspiration, the adjective he or she would likely select would be “strange.” Alabama didn’t throw the ball at all in the first quarter, yet led 14-0 at the quarter break. The defense picked off Mississippi State QB Will Rogers three times, but couldn’t really stop RB Jo’quavious Marks – when his bum ankle allowed him to be on the field. Marks carried 9 times for 68 yards (7.6 avg.) and had 1 reception for another 7 yards. He came within 1 yard of leading all rushers for both teams.

Alabama’s offensive identity at the moment is very much wrapped up in its quarterback, Jalen Milroe, who didn’t play a flawless game Saturday night but who has now put together a pair of solid performances in a row. He was the leading rusher for either team with 69 yards (which included 4 sacks for 23 yards lost) and 2 touchdowns. He completed his first 10 passes in a row and finished the night 10-for-12 for 164 yards. In truth, he was 11-for-12 with a touchdown pass and additional yardage, but was inexplicably robbed of the result when officials chose not to review TE Amari Niblack’s catch in the back of the end zone, a catch that saw him come down inbounds but was ruled incomplete.

With each passing week, Milroe’s performances get steadier. The second half of last week’s win over Ole Miss, through the four quarters of this game, showed a progression of maturity and patience. We’re far, far away from being able to call Milroe a difference-maker on this team, but it does appear that he is shedding the traits that made him a liability at times in the past, and is becoming the type of player defenses are forced to respect.

The real question for Alabama, after this win, is what of its defense? For all but two drives Saturday night, the defense had a throwback look to it – as in, throw it all the way back to the Gene Stallings years. Alabama was able to contain the Bulldog running game well enough and then goad the MSU coaches into ill-advised fourth-down attempts to extend drives. The Bulldog passing game was never a threat.

On the other hand, twice in this game, Alabama allowed the Bulldogs to take control of both the line-of-scrimmage battle and the game flow, ending in a pair of touchdown drives that saw State take advantage of gap discipline breakdowns, chiefly from Alabama’s linebackers.

By the numbers, it should have added up to a much closer game. But the score differential wound up at 23 points, and Alabama had its backups in the game early in the fourth quarter.

Alabama has won over the years with great defenses and great offenses, both. This team has neither one of those yet, but the offense is becoming more confident in doing the things it knows how to do, and the defense is becoming more confident in playing aggressively and not sitting back on its heels. It wasn’t lost on most Alabama fans that its former defensive coordinator, now employed at the SEC’s other Mississippi school, finished his night yielding 700-plus total yards to LSU.

If Alabama is going to follow through with its intentions to contend for the College Football Playoff, the defense is going to have to take it there. Over the last two weeks, the 2023 Alabama defense has put up enough evidence to suggest that maybe – maybe – it can deliver.

By the numbers, it should have added up to a much closer game. But the score differential wound up at 23 points, and Alabama had its backups in the game early in the fourth quarter.

Alabama has won over the years with great defenses and great offenses, both. This team has neither one of those yet, but the offense is becoming more confident in doing the things it knows how to do, and the defense is becoming more confident in playing aggressively and not sitting back on its heels. It wasn’t lost on most Alabama fans that its former defensive coordinator, now employed at the SEC’s other Mississippi school, finished his night yielding 700-plus total yards to LSU.

If Alabama is going to follow through with its intentions to contend for the College Football Playoff, the defense is going to have to take it there. Over the last two weeks, the 2023 Alabama defense has put up enough evidence to suggest that maybe – maybe – it can deliver.

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

1. Bama’s return to forcing turnovers couldn’t be coming at a better time. There is plenty of debate as to whether Pete Golding himself was the problem with some of Alabama’s recent defenses, but regardless, by 2022 Alabama had become too passive and there was no place where it showed more than in creating turnovers and overall turnover margin. Alabama ranked 79th in turnover margin a year ago with a -0.15 differential; any number in the negative is a bad sign.

Alabama was 70th nationally and 10th in the SEC in fumbles recovered, and was 100th nationally and 11th in the SEC in passes intercepted. All three numbers had improved significantly coming into this game and will improve yet again coming out of it. Given how the defense is being counted upon to carry the offense a bit in the early going, getting production in and from turnovers is not optional.

Mississippi State QB Will Rogers will end his career having four horrific performances against Alabama, and it has been the defense’s ability to pick him off that has made the biggest impact.

2. Special teams didn’t have a perfect night, but Alabama’s kickers are both weapons. The SEC as a whole has strong special teams in 2023, but Alabama might be the best of the lot. Placekicker Will Reichard went 4-for-4 in this game, and punter James Burnip hit three kicks for a 53.3-yard average. The rest of the Bama special teams actually didn’t fare so well; Ga’Quincy McKinstry fumbled a punt return but managed to recover the ball, and Reichard only recorded 4 touchbacks out of his 8 kickoffs.

Mississippi State had two big returns of kickoffs, although one of them will be remembered more for how backup kicker Conor Talty’s tackle on the sidelines around the 40-yard line. Having Reichard as the kicker gives Alabama a bit of a safety net while QB Jalen Milroe develops, because Alabama is almost guaranteed to get points anywhere from about the 30-yard line in. Burnip may be the most improved Alabama player at any position.

Reichard, in particular, was water torture for MSU, adding three points at a time at regular intervals.

3. For a second consecutive game, Milroe improved as the night went along. Is it time to test for a ceiling? After a shaky start, which was marked (again) by a couple of bad snaps, Jalen Milroe settled in and became productive and then continued to get better as the game went along. Milroe’s accuracy over the past two weeks has been plenty good enough to run the offense properly, and he has distributed the ball to multiple receivers well. Two more touchdowns on the ground have cemented his status as a dual threat to opposing defenses.

The upcoming game against Texas A&M will certainly test Alabama as a whole and Milroe in particular, but at some point the Alabama coaches have to ask themselves just how much Milroe can handle? If he continues to make steady progress along the lines of what he has shown against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, the next question will be just how high can he go?

Milroe isn’t a classic game manager quarterback, but managing the game is exactly what he has done the last two weeks.

4. LB gap discipline was off and Bama missed Deontae Lawson badly. Trezmen Marshall may have played his all-around best game since coming to Alabama, and Jihaad Campbell had a big interception and led the team in tackles, but something just felt off all night long.

On the two long drives Alabama’s defenses yielded, there were several issues with filling gaps properly, some by defensive linemen but most by the linebacker group. Nick Saban praised Marshall’s work after the game and the words weren’t just lip service, but Lawson is expected back next week and hopefully his return will cut down on some of the assignment errors.

5. After a slow start, the OL took a step forward as the game went along. Alabama ran the ball well, although not overwhelmingly so. Having said that, Mississippi State’s defensive front is good against the run and, despite suffering from depth issues brought about by injuries, this game was a tough assignment. Alabama still needs to cut out the bad snaps, but C Seth McLaughlin is fighting a wrist injury and apparently this is just something Alabama will have to manage through.

LT Kadyn Proctor improved his play a good bit in this game, and Alabama had fewer missed assignments from the interior players. The tight ends continue to be a factor in the running game. This unit will get the test of their lives next week.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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