The W2W4 for #5 Alabama versus #1 Mississippi State

This week it was difficult for me to transition from a heart stopping win at LSU to reviewing the #1 ranked Mississippi Bulldogs but, like the team does, we tried our best to adhere to the 24, er, 48, er, 72 hour rule. I probably spent more time on the LSU game review than I’ve ever spent on any other review that I’ve done because there was just so much to break down. Break downs in the running game. Break downs in the passing game. And observing a defense that never, ever broke down in the face of any Death Valley adversity. From trick plays to referee decisions (that was the first time I’ve ever focused ANY attention on the refs), the LSU review was chock full of goods and bads that led to an ugly victory. But, going home with ugly beats going home alone and now we get to turn our sights on the top ranked team in the country with our eyes still focused on the prize…

How much Mississippi State football have you watched this season? You certainly know about Dak Prescott, the Heisman trophy hopeful QB who both runs and throws with reckless abandon. And you probably know about Josh Robinson, the bowling ball of butcher knives who has carved up the interior defenses of LSU (197) and Kentucky (198) this season. But, what was a little surprising to me was the fact that these Dawgs throw more than just a few bones in other directions. Eight different receivers have more than 10 catches. Seven of these have 15 catches or more. Comparatively, Alabama has only four receivers who have caught more than 10 passes (but one of those is, of course, Amari Cooper). So when you watch the Mississippi State offense, you see Prescott and Robinson running the zone read to perfection. But, you’ll also see them diversify by threatening the flanks with quick passes to a variety of receivers.  Then, they’ll threaten vertically with play action when the safeties have to come up to stop the zone reads. Folks, this is the most diverse attack we’ve seen in quite a while.  Don’t believe me?  Did you know they actually rank 1st in the conference in yards per game (ahead of A&M and Auburn and, well, everyone else)???

Defensively, State’s front seven looks like something out of an Alabama defense and that’s not surprising since they are led by former Alabama staffer Geoff Collins who serves as the defensive coordinator. They are first in the league in sacks with 32 (Bama has 23). They are third in the conference at stopping the run and they have been the only team that has shut down Auburn’s spread rushing attack for two consecutive seasons, turning them strictly into a chucking and ducking team. That’s impressive. And while they rank last in the conference (and 120th overall) in passing defense, they somehow STILL rank first in red zone defense!  That’s right, when the opposition gets inside the 20 State seems to tighten up like a sphincter hitting a cold toilet seat (seriously, it’s been mighty cold in our bathroom stalls this week).

Folks, this bad boy has the makings of being a doozy of a game. Number one in the country versus number five. It’s Alabama’s second straight playoff game in a row – lose once more and they’ll be out of the playoffs completely. But Bama’s been there and they’ve done that. State not only hasn’t been there but they don’t even know where “there” is. They can’t act like they’ve been here before because they never have been. Ever.  That could be the key Saturday night – will they State their case or will they shart their pants?

Alabama on Offense

For once, we probably won’t spend a ton of time on the offensive side of the ball simply because the equation is pretty simple. Last season, TJ Yeldon rang up 160 yards on the ground as Alabama pounded out a 20-7 win in Starkville. This season is not be last season and it’s very unlikely that Alabama as a team will rush for anything close to that number. Two weeks ago Yeldon was nursing a left foot injury and last week he sprained his right ankle. With two flat tires you have to wonder how much of an impact Yeldon will have. And, it’s obvious that Alabama’s offensive brain trust has transitioned to more of a passing team, anyway, so all signs point to Alabama needing to throw the ball to get a win Saturday night.

In watching State’s games against Auburn and Arkansas, they easily stuffed the run against both of these run first teams. Against the pass, State likes to just rush four and sit seven men back in what amounts to a matchup zone with safeties over the top. The underneath areas in front of the linebackers are easy pickings and the corners tend to play “off” coverage which allows for the Tide’s favorite passing play – the WR screen/now route – to be completed at will. The Bulldogs feel that if they can keep the play in front of them, then their defenders can come up and make the play (and that philosophy contributes to their red zone success). UAB, Kentucky, Auburn and Arkansas were able to challenge the deep middle and the deep sidelines against State, so the LSU game plan would seem to be a good one to implement Saturday night.

Kelly’s Heroes: Center Ryan Kelly may require a little help this week because defensive tackle PJ Jones showed up several times in beating the opposing center off the snap. Very impressive. State doesn’t do anything flashy – they rely on winning one on one battles and guys like Jones allow them to do this.

More Cushion for the Pushin’: The Bulldogs play a ton of “off” coverage which allows short, quick throws out to the wide receivers. Alabama should take advantage of this early and often, forcing the corners to roll up and take away the shorties. Of course, when they do…

Fly Guys: Auburn had a ton of success working down the deep sidelines, away from the safeties so if the corners roll up, look for a slot shot up the sidelines. If the corners play back, the deep middle should be available. UAB scored on deep posts of 88, 81 and 75 yards. That is NOT a misprint. Kentucky scored on 67 and 58 yard strikes, as well. Oftentimes, the safeties were threatened with one deep route which left a second deep route against the isolated corner wide open.

Wonderwall: The MSU run defense should look familiar to Bama fans. Their line is asked to stand the offensive line up and allow the linebackers to clean up the aisles. They maintain outside leverage extremely well and since they are in zone their corners can see into the backfield and provide run support quickly. Success between the tackles can be had in small chunks but we’ll have to be very, very patient.

Danger Zone: MSU likes to rush three and drop eight so Blake will likely have to use his legs and extend plays in order to help break down the zone. The linebackers take good drops and are able to read routes so some of the typical passing lanes and routes (crossers, ins, slants) will not be available.

Tidebits

  • Arkansas seemed to find running room in between their right tackle and right guard. Look for Bama to run behind Shepherd and Brown with modest to decent success.
  • Auburn’s Nick Marshall hurt the Dawgs by running out of the zone read. Once again, we think Sims is going to have to use his legs as a weapon. We didn’t see that much last week and when we’ve been successful on offense, Sims has been a threat in the running game.
  • With Yeldon now suffering from injuries to both ankles, his production should be limited. He excels in blitz pickups so look for him to be used in a part time role on 1st and 2nd down but he’ll be the full time third down back to help in pass protection.
  • Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry had a huge game against State so perhaps OJ Howard will make an appearance or two this week.  Maybe.  But, we’ve said this before so probably not…
  • I still can’t believe Cam Robinson was able to play last week – simply incredible. He should be even more healthy this week but he’ll also be put to a sterner test.
  • Kentucky’s Patrick Towles threw for 390 yards against State and Gary Danielson felt the safeties were a half step slow and that folks were figuring out how to scheme the Bulldogs’ secondary.  Let’s hope he’s right (and he usually is).
  • Kentucky and Auburn each hurt MSU with QB draws.  Blake – I hope you are reading this.

Alabama on Defense

This is where the good stuff is as this matchup will likely determine the game. Alabama’s front six (they will be in nickel all night long) MUST control the line of scrimmage and stuff the State rushing attack. To the good, in Nick Saban’s tenure he’s never had any issues in stopping Dan Mullen’s running game whether Mullen was at Florida or Mississippi State. These MSU rushing numbers over the past few years bode well for the Tide:

  • 2013: 53 yards
  • 2012: 47 yards
  • 2011: 12 yards
  • 2010: 149 yards
  • 2009: 114 yards
  • 2008: 142 yards (Florida)

In their games against Arkansas and Auburn, the MSU offensive line allowed quite a bit of penetration numerous times. Sometimes it was by design but sometimes it was just a whiff. State has given up 16 sacks this season (good for 8th in the conference) so Alabama should be able to generate pressure by using just their front four. Against Auburn, Prescott completed a couple of huge passes to 6’5 Derunnya Wilson (former Alabama Mr Basketball, if you can believe that) when the Tigers brought the blitz but he also threw a couple of picks and got sacked as well. Prescott isn’t a plus thrower and tends to underthrow receivers whenever touch is required. He also seems to get flustered and confused when his first receiving option isn’t open. Alabama’s front four and pressure packages will have to find their way to the QB or else things could get ugly down the field. But, Prescott’s ability to run will likely enforce the “Tebow Rules” which call for more of a mush rush rather than an all out blitz.

State loves to run play action passes to their fullback and swing passes to Robinson so the Tide’s linebacker coverages will once again be tested. This has been an Achilles heel at times this season so this particular component of the MSU passing game is troubling. They also love to flip the ball outside to their wide receivers so, as you can see, they threaten a defense across the entire length of the field. Due to this, I doubt you’ll see many blitzes as Alabama will play coverage and try to stuff the running game with six defenders.

Middle Man: Dak Prescott seems to love to throw between the hashes. In routes, play action seam routes, posts and slants all seem to be favored routes for Prescott. Against Arky and Auburn, he was picked off throwing a back shoulder fade, a corner route and an out route so playing the pass inside out seems to be the way to go. Prescott has a tendency to underthrow deeper throws so there will be some opportunities for some picks.

Man in the Mirror: Much of the Mississippi State attack will basically mirror the Auburn attack. Look for four wide receivers out wide with Prescott and Robinson in the backfield. They’ll run the zone read (without the threat of fly sweeps) and, like Auburn, they’ll throw out of this, as well. Play action will be deadly if Bama is unable to stop the run with six or seven men.

The Gap Band: I saw an alarming number of unblocked interior defenders flying into the MSU backfield in the three games I watched. I can’t tell if it’s by design but I can tell you that several times it led to a tackle for loss. It seems like the center and the guard fail to communicate, leaving the defensive tackle to make a tackle in the backfield. Reed, Pettway, and Robinson should fare well here (and they’ll need to).

Bad Habit: Defensive ends will get into a bad habit of crashing down inside to play the interior runs. Alabama’s defensive ends MUST maintain outside leverage because Robinson loves to jump cut and/or bounce his runs outside the tackles. Ryan Anderson and Xzavier Dickson must maintain outside leverage.

Backfield in Motion: I saw as many of Prescott’s throws go to backs Robinson and Johnson as the wide receivers to picking up the backs out of the backfield will be huge this week.

All the King’s Horses: If you come up to tackle Josh Robinson, you’d better bring a friend. He wins most of his one on one battles.

Here I Come: If the Dawgs go to an empty set in third and short, Prescott is going to run it. In fact, if Prescott gets the ball in third and short (and he should since he’s, you know, the quarterback) then he’s going to run it. Like Cam Newton or Tim Tebow, Prescott is a walking third down conversion.

Tidebits

  • Prescott is nursing an ankle injury so he hasn’t been healthy in a while. He averages about 17 carries per game so that’s 17 opportunities to knock him out of the ballgame. Don’t be surprised if he limps off to the sidelines at some point.
  • At 6’5, De’Runnya Wilson is a problem. When Prescott reads blitz, this is the man he goes to.
  • Speaking of the blitz, it can cause Prescott some real problems. However, if you blitz and you don’t get home, Prescott can hurt you and he did this twice against Auburn.
  • On some plays, MSU uses their guard to pull and pick up the defensive end. This takes a long time so if the DE charges in, then you are looking at a possible strip sack.
  • Interior pressure from Auburn and Arkansas disrupted several drives. This bodes well.
  • State loooooooves deep ins, posts and slants in man to man situations.

Alabama on Special Teams

Mississippi State ranks just behind Alabama in field goal percentage so expect fans from both teams to hold their breath on any field goal attempts. And with a long of 37 yards, Alabama needs to hold State outside of the 20 yard line and they should feel good about their chances to keep the Dawgs off the scoreboard. With Adam Griffith hitting his last two kicks, perhaps this is a small advantage towards the Tide.

JK Scott has Alabama ranked #1 in punting average at 47.1 yards per punt but State boasts a very respectable 43.5 yards per punt, so there shouldn’t be as huge of an advantage as you might expect here. However, surprisingly Alabama’s return game is much better than the Dawgs so there should be some hidden yardage in here that may help tilt the field position battle in favor of the good guys.

Conclusion

When you watch Mississippi State play on film, they look very, very good. Whatever your notions are of what MSU football looks like, you need to check that at the door as you come in to watch this game. The Lighthouse is expecting a very, very similar game to the LSU game with both teams struggling to consistently generate much in the way of offense. This will be a hard hitting affair so beware to any Tiders who catch the ball in front of the State zone defense – they come up hard and fast and with very bad intentions. I hate to trot out the old clichés but winning the turnover margin and having a sound kicking game may dictate who wins or loses this one because it may be just that close.

Mississippi State has opened the scoring in 8 of their 9 contests so they typically get out fast. Meanwhile, Alabama hasn’t scored a touchdown in the first quarter of a game following the LSU game in 13 years so the first quarter may tell you all you need to know about this game. But State is ranked #1 and playing not to lose. Alabama is ranked #5 and wants to put the Dawgs back in their kennel where they belong. With the home crowd, the disrespect of a #5 ranking and the #1 team in the house, for the first time in a long time State will have Alabama’s complete and full attention.

In the end, you can’t look at a team that is ranked 120th in the nation in pass defense and think that there won’t be some opportunities thru the air Saturday afternoon. And when you have a receiver like Amari Cooper, you have to think that’s a HUGE advantage for the Tide. Bama won’t generate much offense in the running game but we think there will be some deep opportunities where we can score outside of the red zone. Defensively, Alabama’s defense has owned Dan Mullen’s running game and because of that, the Tide wins a tight one….

Final Score: Alabama 24   Miss State 17

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