W2W4 – Mississippi State

W2W4 Mississippi State

Well, whodathunk that Mississippi State (did we get their name right on the tickets this year?) would arrive in week nine of the college football season with an undefeated record, a top 11 national ranking and pose the biggest threat to Alabama’s march to Miami thus far?  I mean, honestly – it’s MSU, for goodness sakes!  But, here we are, strapped in and ready for a dog fight (no, Mr Vick, it’s just an expression – we aren’t being literal here). Over the last few weeks, Alabama has gradually stepped up in class with convincing victories over Ole Miss, Mizzou, and Tennessee.  Now, the national media would have us believe that Bama is taking a significant step up on the difficulty meter with a matchup against Mississippi State.  “Finally we’ll see what Alabama is made of,” they say.  After all, MSU is ranked 11th in the BCS and they are undefeated so the Dawgs must be outstanding, right?

Each week when the Lighthouse staff breaks down the upcoming opponent for the W2W4, the first thing we do is check the SEC stats to see how the upcoming opponent ranks compared to other teams in the nation’s best conference.  In this instance, the staff had to spend a little extra time expanding the analysis to incorporate the national NCAA statistics in order to show you how poor the Bulldogs’ schedule has been.  If the pundits want to make fun of Alabama’s schedule, I’d love to see them slap some lipstick on this pig, er, dawg.  Thus far, these are the teams that have Hailed State:  Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Middle Tennessee.  A quick check of the national rankings tells us that these Dawgs should have some GAUDY offensive statistics because they have yet to face anyone ranked higher 67th in total defense (Troy).  After Troy, Auburn, ranked 75th in total defense, is the next toughest D the Dawgs have faced.  Meanwhile, Alabama’s offense has faced four defenses ranked in the top 41:  Michigan (10), Western Kentucky (19), Ole Miss (40), and Missouri (41). 

So, armed with that knowledge, the Lighthouse staff braced to see some significant offensive stats and SEC offensive rankings from Mississippi State but, instead, stunningly what we saw was mediocrity. Here are their SEC offensive rankings:

  • Total Offense:  7th
  • Passing Offense:  5th
  • Rushing Offense:  7th
  • Scoring Offense:  4th

Having played against the 67th ranked defense or worse this season, the Mississippi State offense should be ranked much, much higher than 7th in total offense.  So, now we’ll move on to the film study portion of the show while we shake our heads in disbelief because the Dogs really should be making some hay against the pathetic defenses and teams on their schedule.  Anyway, here’s what to watch for Saturday night…

Bama on Offense

Last year against Mississippi State, the Tide was still hung over and hurting from the LSU loss and truggled to a 7-0 halftime lead.  Eventually, the ground game started clicking and Alabama imposed their will in the second half, winning the game 24-7.  This year, Mississippi State’s defense doesn’t appear to be quite as tough as last season – they are only ranked 6th in the conference in passing defense and 7th in rushing defense, and both Tennessee and Troy rushed for over 200 yards against them.  Also, the Dawgs’ defense ranks 12th in sacking the quarterback, so they can’t stop the run and they can’t pressure the QB, either.  Where Mississippi State has been getting it done is in the turnover category – the Bulldogs are ranked first in the conference, causing 21 turnovers this season.  The fact that their secondary has picked off 12 passes while their front seven generates next to nothing in the pass rush category tells us just how good State’s corners are this season.  Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay will be the two best corners Bama will face this season.  Both corners play a ton of press man-to-man coverage, they’ve each intercepted four passes and Banks has yet to give up a touchdown thru the air this season.  These two ole Dogs can hunt.  Even the safeties are experienced – one of them is even a former corner so the pass coverage for State should be outstanding yet they only rank 6th in the conference in pass defense.  However, two weeks ago the MSU secondary did limit Tyler Bray to only 148 yards passing so maybe they are getting better.  The defense did, however, get gashed for 213 yards rushing in the UT game so I think this may be a clue as to how to whip these Dawgs…

Here Comes The Boom:  Troy rushed for 223 yards.  Tennessee rushed for 213 yards.  Neither of them have the type of rushing attack that Alabama has.  The Lighthouse looks for Bama to absolutely brutalize the Dogs with a downhill running attack that will pound them into submission.  Bama should eclipse the 200 yard mark in rushing.

Hangin’ With Mr Cooper:  Amari Cooper has become THE go-to receiver for Alabama.  I think MSU will match up Johnthan Banks with Cooper as much as humanly possible and they’ll likely roll a lot of coverage towards the true freshman phenom throughout the night.

To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before:  This season, AJ McCarron has shown an uncanny ability to get the ball to the open receiver, whoever that might be.  AJ seems to spread the love more than ole Willie Nelson.  And, with Cooper garnering all of State’s attention, I look for Norwood, Jones and Bell to have much better production than usual.  State plays bump and run and, with the speed and elusiveness of the Bama receivers, I think these three WRs will be a real problem for the Dogs.  Look for the crossing patterns to be particularly deadly.

Double Vision:  With State playing tight man to man defense, the crystal ball tells us that double moves will be double trouble for State.  Look for a sluggo (slant and go) or an out and up to result in a quick six points for the home team.

Let it B:  With State using their corners in bump and run coverage, this allows extra defenders to move up to the line of scrimmage.  MSU will blitz their linebackers on nearly every play and, oftentimes, they blitz in either the A gap or the B gap (up the middle to either the left or right of the center), or both.  Unfortunately, this season Alabama’s OL has shown that this particular middle blitz can give them trouble.  I look for at least one sack to come out of this type of blitz but I also look for Alabama to utilize the screen game in an attempt to nullify these types of blitzes.  Additionally, as we said in the W2W4 against Missouri, with an experienced OL like the one Alabama has, look for State to get caught in a blitz.  At least twice, the Bama OL will crease the blitz, allowing a Bama back to pick up huge chunks o’ yardage.

Swami Sez:  Nothing on film or on paper tells the Lighthouse that MSU will be able to stop Alabama’s offense.  Bama should roll up more than 200 yards of offense both rushing and passing.  Yeldon and Lacy should each go over 70 yards.  I sincerely doubt that Amari Cooper leads the team in receptions or yardage but I think you will be happy with the production from Bell, Norwood and Jones.  We’ll say this trio will contribute 9 catches, 130 yards and a touchdown.  If we miss, it will be on the catches but I sincerely doubt we’ll miss on the yardage or the touchdown predictions.  The only part that scares us is the Bulldog blitzes.  On nearly every single play they seem to bring a minimum of 5 players in the pass rush.  It’s strange to me that this aggressive philosophy has resulted in so few sacks.  When you blitz and you don’t pressure or sack the QB, it makes for a long day.  As a Lighthouse poster says, every time they bring the blitz, somebody’s band is about to play.  Here’s hoping the Million Dollar Band gets worn out.

Bama on Defense

Dan Mullen has yet to create a successful offensive game plan against a Nick Saban defense and, honestly, we don’t see that changing Saturday night.  Typically, Mullen has been asked to take down Big Al with nothing more than a straw and some spit balls but this year Mullen actually has a QB who is familiar with the concept of a forward pass.  While Tyler Russell ranks third in the conference in passing efficiency and is certainly the best QB they have had at State since the 60’s, the Bulldog offense only ranks seventh in the conference in total offense (behind the likes of Arkansas, Ole Miss & Tennessee).  State does strike a nice balance between passing (236 ypg) and rushing (180 ypg) and they give up the second fewest sacks in the league behind Tennessee, so Bama can’t exactly concentrate on just stopping the run or only stopping the pass – State looks like they are actually two-dimensional this year.  However, the fact that the Bulldogs haven’t exactly played anyone resembling the Doomsday Defense tells us (and evidently tells Vegas who has as installed Bama as a 24 point favorite) everything we think we need to know about this game.

Back to Life, Back to Reality:  In case you missed it, Troy is the best defense State has faced this season.  Troy.  Against Troy, the 67th ranked defense in the country, Tyler Russell didn’t exactly look like the third most efficient QB in the SEC as he completed only 11 of 26 passes.  We’ll mention that Alabama’s defense is ranked just a few spots, ok – 66 spots, ahead of Troy’s defense and then we’ll just let you do the math from there.  Bama should welcome the Dogs back to the reality that they are not quite at Alabama’s level just yet.

Bother:  The Dogs have one receiver who comes into the game with a pretty solid history of making plays – #1 Chad Bumphis.  Unlike UT’s huge receivers, Bumphis is small and quick and they move him around to multiple spots in the formations in order to find a mismatch.  UT had success getting Justin Hunter and Corradelle Patterson locked up on the Bama safeties and, if this happens with Bumphis, he’ll win more of these matchups than he’ll lose.  Against Troy, 6 of Russell’s 11 completions went to Bumphis and he turned those six catches into 180 yards and 3 TDs.  The Tide must stop Bumphis and must tackle him in the open field whenever he gets the ball.  Last week against Middle Tennessee, he only caught one ball and was non-existent so he can be erased from the game plan at times.  Strange.

Where’s the Beef:  Mississippi State’s OL is very big and they’ve opened up enough creases for LaDarius Perkins to lead the SEC in rushing this season.  At only 5’10, 190, this is the kind of back that Bama typically has a field day against and the Tide’s defense certainly has a history of putting a shock collar on the ‘dogs’ running game.  Last season, Bama held MSU to only 12 yards on 29 carries.  Ouch.  I look for Bama to once again hold their opponent to half of their rushing average so I’m expecting 90 yards or less on the ground from State.

Kryptonite:  There are two things that Nick Saban defenses consistently give up to opposing offenses.  One is the @#$#@$ circle route to the backs coming out of the backfield.  The other, is consistently leaving the tight end open in the passing game.  Against Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers’ tight end caught 7 passes and against Tennessee, a little pop pass to their tight end turned into a 40 yard gain.  MSU utilizes their tight ends and H-backs about as well as anyone in the conference.  Between the tight ends and H-backs I’m thinking they complete 7 passes and at least one completion will go for a touchdown.  Their play action game to the H backs and tight ends is very, very good.

Takin’ What They’re Given:  MSU’s offense isn’t afraid to be out there on the field working for a living because they are third in the conference in time of possession.  In watching MSU on offense, they will gladly accept an 8 yard pass on a third and 6 because they are very happy to simply keep moving the chains.  We look for State to hit some underneath routes and convert several first downs by simply taking what Bama gives them.

Got Me Under Pressure:  This may be our first ever ZZ Top reference – shameful!  Anyway, as usual, Kirby and Nick will be dialing up boundary pressures by sending in safeties Clinton-Dix, Sunseri, and Perry into the teeth of the MSU running game.  We’ve mentioned this, oh, about a hundred times but Saban and Smart brutalize these spread offenses by sending in the safeties just before the snap of the ball.  “Nick’s gonna give a message and here’s what it’s gonna say – It’s all over…”

Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go:  If you want to know where the running play is going, follow the H-Back and he’ll led you there.  Wherever he leads, the tailbacks follow.  MSU loves to pull the H-back from one side of the formation to the other along with a pulling guard.  It’s an interior running play and this hole is between the guard and tackle opposite of where the H-back lines up.  This is their bread and butter play.  Stop this play and win the game.  

Swami Sez:  MSU has some big offensive linemen so predicting less than 90 yards of rushing is going out on the limb, especially when dealing with the SEC’s leading rusher.  But, the Lighthouse’s crystal Magic 8 ball is telling us less than 90 yards.  So it is written.  It helps that Mullen has never been able to generate a running game against a Nick Saban defense so we don’t think they’ll suddenly unlock the mystery that is the Smart Saban defense.  I think State abandons the running game early and asks Tyler Russell to step up and lead the Bulldogs to an improbable victory and, more improbably, some actual national recognition.  But, MSU has never been here where the stakes are so high and we expect them to play the role of the shrinking violet.  Russell will complete less than 55% of his passes, he’ll get sacked twice and picked at least once.  Toto, we’re not playing Troy or Middle Tennessee anymore.

Bama on Special Teams

Alabama has not looked good on special teams in the last two weeks.  In fact, to say they looked bad would be an affront to the machismo that Michael Jackson showed in the filming of the “Bad” video.  Talk about bad.  Anyway, Mizzou took one kickoff to the house and Tennessee took two back to midfield – problem.  Alabama muffed a punt in each of the last two games – problem.  Cody Mandel and AJ McCarron have each botched a snap in the last two weeks – problem.  Cade Foster was 0-2 on very makeable kicks last week – problem.  Yikes.  Suddenly Alabama seems to have some mounting concerns on special teams.  Here are a few things we’ll have our eyes on when it’s time for the special teams to take the field:

  • Johnthan Banks is an excellent punt returner, averaging almost 10 yards per return.  Hang time will be the name of the game for Cody Mandel this week.
  • After Mandel booted a 49 yard punt from his own end zone last week, I’ll be watching to see if he can continue to get back to his early season form where punts of over 43 yards were the norm.
  • Foster really needs to drill his next field goal attempt to prove he simply had an off night against UT.
  • Who will return punts for Bama?  Cyrus or Christion Jones?  The bet here is Christion since his ankle sounds like it’s back to 100%.
  • I am looking for a botch free night in the kicking game and I think we’ll get it because, well, we are due!

Conclusion

Until this year, Alabama has always played Mississippi State the week after the LSU game.  And, because of that, every season State has had the appearance of the dreaded “let down” game.  Last season, Alabama suffered a soul crushing defeat at home against LSU and then had to drive down the street to Starkville to take on the Bulldogs.  If ever there should have been a letdown game, that was it but, as usual, Bama eventually disposed of the Dogs without much of a fuss.  This season the matchup against State finally appears to set up perfectly for the Tide.  There should be no chance of overlooking them this week because the Dawgs are undefeated and ranked 11th in the BCS standings.  Everyone who has a microphone or a computer says the Mississippi State game will be the biggest challenge thus far for Alabama, after all they say Bama hasn’t played anyone of any worth this season.

Listen, if Alabama hasn’t played anyone this season then I’m not sure what that says about Dan Mullen’s team because State’s schedule has been littered with a bunch of dogs.  Offensively, Mullen is working with a pure passing quarterback for the first time since he worked with Chris Leak and the stats tell me that the MSU offense is still a work in progress.  Honestly – they are ranked 7th in total offense and they haven’t played a defense in the top 65?  Meanwhile, Nick Saban’s defenses have had their way with Urban Meyer’s former offensive genius because the Tide has never given up more than 10 points to a Mullen coached Bulldog team.  The film, the stats and the history (oh, and the odds makers) all seem to point towards another easy Crimson Tide victory over the Dawgs and we agree.

 

Final Score:  Alabama 37 Mississippi State 16

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