It’s been a busy week here at the Lighthouse. A trip to Chicago resulted in my wife getting food poisoning and me coming down with a fever and crud. In the middle of all of that fun, the hotel we were staying at couldn’t get the wifi working in our room so the W2W4 never got posted. If it had been, those of you who follow the blog would have been pretty well-informed and you would have known that Mississippi State would pose a few problems for the Tide.
Coming off of the high of beating LSU, Alabama was due for a bit of a letdown and that’s exactly what you witnessed on Saturday night. Credit Geoff Collins (former Alabama assistant coach) for constructing an excellent defensive game plan that all but eliminated big plays in the passing game. State used 8 and 9 man fronts to clog the running lanes and they showed numerous blitzes only to drop into 8 and 9 man coverages which confused the Tide QB AJ McCarron. McCarron completed 9 of 19 passes for 71 yards in the first half but halftime adjustments allowed him to complete 9 of 13 for 116 yards in the second half. And, for all the hand wringing over the running game, Alabama still averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
Defensively, Alabama wasn’t really challenged (as usual from Dan Mullen) and I think State could have played the rest of the night and never scored again on offense. The stout Bama front four all but eliminated the Bulldogs running game which was their bread and butter coming into the game. With Dak Prescott having to sit out the game with an injury, State used a short, quick passing game from empty formations with marginal success. In the end, Alabama was simply too strong, too disciplined and too good on defense for State to do much of anything on offense. Here are a few of the things that stood out to us Saturday night….
Alabama on Offense
With State crowding the box in an effort to shut down the running game, it took Alabama a little while to get going on offense. But, the really interesting thing was the number of times State chose to rush only 3 and sometimes just 2 men. This really seemed to confuse McCarron and in watching the tape he missed quite a few open receivers running free in the secondary. Instead of taking shots down the field, AJ chose to throw numerous check down passes to the running backs or he had to settle for short scrambles after giving up on the pocket. I loved this approach by Mississippi State as it really stymied any big plays out of the passing game. Eventually, Alabama got going in the second half, gaining 213 of their 383 yards even though they committed three turnovers in the half.
Ooops I Did It Again: Ugh. Another game, another massive case of fumble-itis by Yeldon and Drake. Drake’s fumble was particularly troubling because he really wasn’t hit that hard. Yet, a simple little arm tackle tore the ball loose and poor Drake had fumbled once again. Rest assured that Auburn, Missouri, South Carolina and Florida State are all practicing ripping the ball out during their weekly practices.
Communication: The word coming out of the Alabama locker room was that there were some communication issues along the offensive line. We haven’t heard that kind of talk since the Virginia Tech and Colorado State games – games that Ryan Kelly started at center. In watching the tape, Kelly actually played relatively well and the issues seemed to be related the number of defenders Mississippi State used to crowd the box.
Ch-Ch-Changes: So, with State crowding the line of scrimmage, Alabama’s offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier began throwing on first down. Out of ten first downs in the third quarter, Alabama threw seven times, completing 6 of them for 69 yards.
Size Matters: As Todd Blackledge astutely pointed out during the broadcast, Alabama also countered the 8 man fronts by inserting both of their tight ends into the lineup. In a bit of a twist, Alabama turned back the clock to a couple of years ago and used the pistol formation quite a bit Saturday night with nice results. The Tide used pistol formation runs (with two tight ends) six times for 81 yards, including Yeldon’s 50 yard scamper.
The Answer Man: Say what you will about the State game but, once again, when Alabama was challenged, Alabama answered immediately. After the Bulldogs pulled within three points, AJ McCarron used the play action passing game on first down and led the Tide on a nine play, 77 yard drive to make the score 17-7. As usual, when the going got tough, McCarron turned to Kevin Norwood as he caught the first pass and the last pass of the drive.
Alabama on Defense
Another year, another complete and total domination of the Mississippi State offense. For a guy who was supposedly the brain child behind Urban Meyer’s Florida offenses, you’d think Dan Mullen would have a little more to offer in offensive game planning. With Dak Prescott forced to miss the game, Tyler Russell was once again forced to face the Crimson Tide defense and he was once again ineffective. State’s offensive line actually held up pretty well but I think that was due in large part to the fact that Alabama played the Bulldogs pretty much straight up. The Dogs primarily used an empty backfield and five wide receivers which forced Alabama to declare their coverages and blitzes on each down. But, even with that, the three-step drop and quick passing game yielded few results.
Four Play: As in the Ole Miss game, the Tide’s front four completely dominated the running game, holding State to only 53 yards rushing. Auburn fans should take note that the Bulldogs came into the game averaging over 200 yards rushing…
This Is How We Do It: Mississippi State’s run game is a physical one that has some similarities to Auburn’s running game. Now, clearly Tyler Russell is no Nick Marshall but, like Auburn, State likes to pull their guards, tight ends and fullbacks in the running game. From the spread, all of these offenses tend to have similar running plays. Saban and Smart are able to stifle these running games by using their ends to get up field and force outside runs back to the inside. Meanwhile, the Bama defensive tackles hold the point and use their hands to disengage and make tackles along the front. With the front four holding down the fort, the linebackers and safeties are able to flow to the ball freely, making it very, very difficult to run the football.
Lonely Man on the Corner: Credit has to go out to Cyrus Jones for his efforts in run support. On the first MSU third down opportunity, Jones was trucked by Ladarius Perkins when he came up to make a tackle. From that point on, Jones was more physical and much more helpful in stopping the run.
Who Are You: Remember Geno Smith? Well, there were a few Geno sightings Saturday night and that was really good to see. He has all the potential in the world so it was nice to see him come thru on a couple of third down stops once again.
Young Guns: A’Shawn Robinson is an absolute beast inside. He collected yet another sack and leads the team with five sacks…and he’s just a true freshman. His ability to use his hands to create separation is something special. With the losses of Darius Paige, Dalvin Tomlinson, Dakota Ball and the mysterious disappearance of LaMichael Fanning, I honestly don’t know where we’d be without him.
I’ll Be Taking These Here Huggies: I continue to believe that Alabama has the best two safeties in the country and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix keeps proving me right. Clinton-Dix ended up in man to man coverage against State’s best receiver and Tyler Russell thought he had himself a mismatch. It was a mismatch, all right. Advantage Clinton-Dix, who finished the route better than the State receiver, picking off a pass in the end zone.
Boom Goes the Dynamite: Holy Mother of Pearl, did Christion Jones lay a hit on that kickoff or what? Is there anything that kid doesn’t do? My Lord, what a hit!!!
We’ve Come Along Way Baby: Last, but certainly not least, we have to give a shout out to Cody Mandell and Cade Foster. Each of them have come a long way from their first appearances in the Tide’s special teams. Mandell has transformed himself into one of the country’s top punters with a 47.2 average while Foster has endured a tough start to his career to be 11 of 12 in field goals this season. Each of them has put a tremendous amount of work into their craft and all of that work has more than paid off.
Fumbles. Interceptions. Dropped passes. All in all, it was a lackluster effort. LSU always has a way of taking the legs out from under us and Mississippi State is always more than ready to take advantage. The fact of the matter is that Alabama was never challenged while they were on defense and they never are challenged when they face State. Meanwhile, numerous miscues and a nice defensive scheme limited the Alabama offense to one of their lesser performances of the year. But, to the good, this game prepared Alabama for the upcoming Auburn game pretty well. Alabama had to contend with a ton of crowd noise from those ridiculous cowbells and they got to practice against a pretty physical spread running game. On November 30, Auburn’s fans will be taking the volume meter all the way up to 11 and they will most certainly challenge us with a very physical running game so I kind of like the fact that the Bulldogs helped us prepare a little bit for the Tigers. I also like the fact that Alabama was able to stay extremely vanilla in their approach to stopping both Ole Miss and Mississippi State so if Saban and Smart have any tricks up their sleeve, they have yet to show them.
Was it pretty? No. But maybe the struggles of this game will be just the right kind of motivator that will make sure that we aren’t taking anything for granted in the coming weeks.