The Game Review for Mississippi State

In the end, beating the Bulldogs was a just Beautiful Grind.  While the Bryant-Denny crib was rocking and swaying to new jams, old jams and a mic’d up band, Saturday night the Alabama Crimson Tide football team simply did what they are known to do – they grinded up another opponent in what can only be described as the “Process.”

It was never flashy.  Sure, Amari Cooper skied so high that it nearly looked like he was one of the paratroopers delivering the game ball, but for the rest of the game it was just a Beautiful Grind.  When State closed to within one score at 19-13, Bama used 15 plays, converting three key third downs, to slowly march 76 yards in 6:07 to officially drive a stake into the heart of the Cinderella Bulldogs.  Saban called this Beautiful Grind drive “probably one of the greatest drives in Alabama history” and once it was finished, so were the hopes (including the Heisman hopes) of Dan Mullen and Bulldog fans everywhere.   When the clock struck zero, Alabama became the Lone Survivor in the West (if they continue to take care of business).

Sometimes I think the Tide’s methodical grind must be what it’s like to watch sausage being made.  I’m mean, it sure is a tasty product in the end sometimes how it all came about may not be the prettiest thing to see.  But, tonight, move over Abe Froman for Alabama is the Sausage King of the United States (and greater Chicago)!

Alabama on Defense

We start this week by applauding yet another valiant effort from Nick Saban’s defensive charges.  After spending the better part of 60 minutes fending off a corn dog assault, the Tide had to turn right around and face the SEC’s most prolific and diverse offensive attack.  As we mentioned in the W2W4, the State offense attacks all across the line of scrimmage with runs up the middle and off tackle and then flares out to the flats.  And, if they spied 1 on 1 coverage on their NBA power forward masquerading as a wide receiver (6’5 De’runnya Wilson) then they would be more than happy to attack down the field, as well.  This little group of Bulldogs is a LOT different than the previous versions so coming off an extremely physical game against LSU you had to know it would be a challenge.  Or, maybe not.

Nick Saban and Kirby Smart developed a high risk plan that asked their front four (or five, as we’ll discuss in a bit) to stuff the run pretty much by themselves.  And, because of their ability to do just that, Alabama was able to allow their safeties to concentrate solely on stopping the pass and since Nick Perry and Landon Collins both recorded interceptions, I’d say mission accomplished.  Let’s break it down…

Never Gonna Get It:  Typically when Alabama plays a zone read spread time (Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State) they keep two linebackers in the middle and play a four man front.  However, this week Alabama shifted into a five man front, leaving the middle with only one LB or, when they were in nickel, no LBs at all.  This look encouraged Prescott to look to run up the middle because he expected to find a crease and immediately escape out into the secondary since there were no second level defenders.  We’ve talked in this space before about how Alabama’s front line is asked to build a wall instead of shooting up the field and this technique all but eliminated the interior running game.  Jarren Reed, A’shawn Robinson, DJ Pettway, Brandon Ivory and others were all able to stand up their opponent and then move to form a brick wall in front of Prescott.  They were then able to disengage from the blocks and make a tackle or they stacked the line long enough to allow the safeties to come up and make plays when Robinson and Prescott bounced the ball outside.  Simply put, Bama’s front four dominated the Bulldog’s OL.

Whatta Man:  Throughout most of the game, Bama’s corners were locked up in man to man which allowed the safeties (who’s responsibility was oftentimes a back out of the backfield) to either come up in run support or play the RBs out of pass coverage (this is why the swings to Josh Robinson were so effective – the safeties were usually a pretty long way away).  Cyrus Jones fought like a demon throughout the whole game against the much taller, much more physical De’runnya Wilson.  Cyrus De’runnya’d with him, De’fought the ball with him and De’tackled him the entire game – what a man to man job he did.  Oh, and credit Jones for staying with his man in the end zone while MSU trotted out the tired ole jump pass once again.  I think last year’s Auburn game reinforced the fact that he will always stay with his man going forward…

Lonely Man on the Corner:  Bama brought a bunch of corner blitzes in this game that blew up several running plays.  Well conceived blitzes that ended plays sometimes before they began.  Bama changed up their coverages, too, which sometimes allowed the corners to peek into the backfield so that they could provide run support.

Nick of Time:  This was Nick Perry’s best game in a crimson jersey. Whether he was knocking down running backs or quarterbacks at or near the line of scrimmage or picking off passes in coverage, Nick Perry was outstanding.  His ability to come up and make tackles was a huge part in limiting the MSU running game.

Safety Dance:  I can’t think of a better way to set the tone of this game than to push the doggies back into their kennel for a safety.  Credit the blitz of Geno Smith because he blew up the right tackle and, together, they got in the way of the fly sweeper and that forced Robinson to bounce the run back into the end zone.  With no lead blocker, Trey DePriest and DJ Pettway were able to track Robinson down easily for a safety.

Party of Five:  I was shocked at how much Alabama emptied the area behind the defensive line by moving Trey DePriest to a position on the end that essentially formed a 5 man front.  Whenever they did this, they typically brought all five men after Prescott.  Also, this look usually was an automatic read for Prescott to run and Alabama suckered him into this time and time again.

Dead Zone:  For all of the talk about MSU’s red zone defense coming into the game, it was Alabama’s red zone defense that decided the game.  While Alabama posted three touchdowns, MSU was turned away time and time again.  Bama posted three interceptions that were all caught in the red zone and then they forced two field goals, as well.  Outstanding job by the D once again.

Tidebits

  • State used a bunch formation numerous times but Alabama’s secondary showed that they’ve worked on this a ton since the first few games of the season. What was once an Achilles heel for the team has turned into quite a strength.
  • Credit Dan Mullen for two very well conceived passing routes that were converted into touchdowns. With this on tape, believe me when I tell you we’ll be seeing these routes again.
  • I think Alabama was just fine with Prescott swinging the ball out to Robinson time after time.
  • Can teams go ahead and junk the jump pass already? Child, please…ain’t happenin’.
  • I’ve never seen a team that has a punter as a weapon. But now I have.  JK Scott is friggin amazing.  Alabama dominated field position throughout this game and nearly every other game.  Forcing an offense to march the length of the field against this defense is nearly unfair.

Alabama on Offense

Alabama’s offense enjoyed tremendous field position for the first three quarters of the game, starting drives with an average starting field position of their own 35 yard line.  So, it felt a little disappointing that the offense was only able to create 17 points out of those 11 drives.   But, when the Tide needed a drive the most, once again Alabama was able to pound out another long to put the game away. You think there’s a reason that Alabama has 23 SEC titles and 15 National Championships?  Drives like this are why.

The game didn’t exactly begin as planned with Lane Kiffin dialing up a three and out to start the game.  In fact, Alabama once again had trouble in this area as six of their 13 drives resulted in a three and out.  Many may not realize it but State actually outgained the Tide 428-335 so while the Tide dominated the scoreboard, there were still some issues on the offensive side of the ball.  I think it’s terribly important for me to point this out to you guys as we move forward into two big SEC games and then two more playoff games…

Communication: With Alabama playing LSU on the road last week and then MSU at home this week, it was easy to see why Alabama’s offense is so much better at home.  Communication.  On the road, Blake Sims (remember, this is his first year starting) gets to the line, looks over to Kiffin and then has to run up and down the line screaming out the play to his teammates.  Sometimes they don’t get the call.  Other times, everyone is in sync but the play clock is down to 1 at the snap.  Basically, audibles at the line become a Chinese fire drill on the road but are executed easily and quickly with plenty of time on the play clock at home.

Do Run Run Run:  As you could tell from the last drive, Alabama’s offense is very difficult to stop when Blake Sims is used as a runner.  On the third play of the game, Sims ran a QB keeper and it was open for good yardage.  I really thought he was going to get a huge chunk play but McKinney made a great play fighting off a block so Sims came up a yard short of the first down.  I’m disappointed we didn’t come back to this and I’m disappointed that it has to be the most dire of situations before Sims looks to run (but I’m elated that he finally did!.  With Sims throwing high and wide on a few rollouts, at some point it seems like a good idea would be to take the 15 yards of open grass in front of him.  Just a thought.

Remedy:  A few weeks ago we noticed true freshman Ardarius Stewart lining up in the backfield and getting the ball.  This week we saw him used in motion, on crossing routes and on two deep passes.  This kid is fast and has some ridiculous hops so it’s easy to see why they would turn to Stewart to replace Kenyan Drake’s speed out of the backfield or DeAndrew White’s (hamstring issues) vertical threat.  Look for him to continue to be used as he’s an exceptionally fast player – Sims underthrew his speed twice.

Spread Em:  If you haven’t noticed, Alabama has embraced running out of four wide receiver packages.  Sometimes Jalston Fowler and Brian Vogler are lined up as “wide receivers” which allows them to come down to make some pretty devastating blocks.  Bama has run the ball much better out of the spread this year than any other formation.

Rammer Jammer:  It was awesome to see Alabama run the ball effectively between the tackles.  TJ Yeldon was particularly effective and the threat of the interior run allowed him to bounce it outside for the game winning touchdown.

Trojan Men:  The offensive line’s pass protection was OUTSTANDING Saturday.  The Bulldogs came into the game leading the SEC in sacks but they rarely were seen harassing Sims in the backfield.

Red Rain:  Alabama absolutely made it rain in the red zone.  With MSU ranked first in the country in the red zone, the game was won because Alabama converted THREE trips into the red zone into touchdowns.  Don’t underestimate how difficult this was – scoring TDs instead of field goals won this game.  Key passes to TJ Yeldon and Amari Cooper set up easy runs to convert the red zone scores.

Imagination:  After two straight years of watching Jalston Fowler run nothing but flat routes, it caught everyone by surprise when he turned his pattern back to the middle!  He was running down the seam wide open – perfect play call and a perfect way to take advantage of a known tendency on offense.

Jukebox Hero:  I have to mention DeAndrew White’s blocking in this space.  Numerous times this season it’s been White who has provided a key block down the field to allow extra yardage.  This week, White provided a key block to allow TJ Yeldon to get a first down on a pass out of the backfield and then it was White who allowed Sims just enough room to convert his second straight scramble for a first.  Exceptional.

Second Half Doldrums:  I’ve noticed for a few games that Alabama isn’t nearly as productive in the second half as they are in the first but I don’t think it is because they have been conservative.  With State moving the ball and beginning to wrest control of the game, Kiffin dialed up three straight passing plays.  All of them were incomplete and after the punt, State scored to make it 19-13.  In fact, prior to “The Drive” Alabama threw the ball ten times to only three runs.  Not exactly conservative.

Tidebits

  • I was disappointed Alabama didn’t call more “now” or hitch routes out wide as I thought they were available.
  • Cam Robinson actually whiffed on a couple of blocks and also was called for a false start. I hope he gets a chance to rest up and heal up this week.
  • On one roll right, the MSU linebackers were shouting to shift into the roll. The linebacker looked down at the OL’s feet and then started shouting.  Sure enough, Cam Robinson and Arie K turned out to protect the backside of the roll so I think they may be tipping something with their feet.
  • I still don’t know how Amari Cooper caught that deep ball. The MSU defender actually got his hand on the ball.
  • Half of Derrick Henry’s body was in the end zone WITH the football. Amazing that the refs ruled it a fumble and that the play had to be reviewed.
  • Love the pop pass to OJ Howard. Hate the fact he dropped a perfect throw to start the second half.
  • State’s LBs did a phenomenal job in avoiding second level blocks and making tackles.

Final Thoughts

Nick Saban is now 4-1 against the #1 team in the nation when he’s in charge of the Alabama Crimson Tide. That’s amazing to me.  Overall, he’s had five wins over the #1 team in the nation which is more than anyone else has beaten the #1 team since the polls were created in 1936.  In Saban we trust!

But, against these fabled spread attacks, I’m not sure we’ve trusted Saban.  Now, perhaps we should.  In consecutive weeks Saban and Smart have shut down the aerial assault of A&M, the power running of LSU and the diversified attack of the SEC’s top ranked offense in Mississippi State.  While the offense may sputter at times, the defense remains on point.  No other team in the country has the athletes or the variety of schemes that can allow them to have success against these three very different offensive attacks so credit recruiting, coaching and schemes for bringing Alabama back to the #1 spot in the country.

I apologize for the delay in getting this out – lots going on this week.  We’ll pass on doing a W2W4 for Western Carolina but we’ll do a Game Review and then get ready for the Iron Bowl…

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