Alabama had its usual Red Zone problems and finished on the short end of a 24-16 score in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday.
In a meeting of teams coached by former Alabama players, Sylvester Croom's Mississippi State Bulldogs made clutch plays on offense and defense. It was perhaps the most discouraging loss in the four-year career of Mike Shula as head coach of the Crimson Tide.
The loss dropped Alabama to 6-4 overall and 2-4 in Southeastern Conference play. It was Mississippi State's first SEC win as the Bulldogs went 3-1 against teams from the state of Alabama. Although the Dogs were crushed by Auburn, 34-0, Bama joined Jacksonville State and Alabama-Birmingham as State victims. Mississippi State has no other wins in its 3-7 record.
It was Mississippi State's first SEC road win in exactly six years, since the Bulldogs beat Kentucky in Lexington on November 4, 2000. Alabama leads the all-time series, 72-16-3. It was State's first win over Bama since 2000.
The road doesn't get easier for Alabama. The Tide will be at LSU next week. Kickoff time and television coverage will be announced Sunday. Bama has one home game remaining, hosting Auburn November 18.
Alabama's only lead in the game came in the opening moments, an all-too-familiar trip into the Red Zone that produced only three points. The game was later tied at 10-10, but State made a one-play goalline stand to end the first half and let its defense do the work in the second half.
Alabama was unable to capitalize fully on its first possession, a fine drive that ended up in what has been for Alabama the Dread Zone. With second and goal at the one, the Tide had a lost yard then an incomplete pass and had to settle for Jamie Christensen kicking a 19-yard field goal. Bama had gotten a good start with Javier Arenas' good kickoff return to the 40. A nice mix of run (Tim Castille 11 yards, Kenneth Darby seven yards on first and goal from the eight) and pass (John Parker Wilson 11 to Will Oakley, 21 to D.J. Hall) plays put the Tide into position for opening points.
Mississippi State had no trouble responding. The Bulldogs went 70 yards in nine plays, taking just 3:18. Michael Henig combined with his big play receiver, Tony Burks on a crossing pattern for a 25-yard touchdown. The drive also included a 21-yard run by Anthony Dixon and Henig hitting Aubrey Bell for 15 yards.
Alabama's special teams weren't so special on the kickoff following the State TD with Rashad Johnson mishandling the ball and the Tide having to start at its own seven. Wilson got the Tide out of a hole, first with a pass to Hall for a first down at the 26, then with a shot put pass to Castille to keep the drive alive for a moment at the 40. But then a Bama punt went only 28 yards to the Mississippi State 30.
State got more than the length of that punt on first down with a 30-yard run by Dixon, then got another first down on a third down Henig to Eric Butler completion to the Alabama 26. The drive stalled at the Tide 21 and Adam Carlson kicked a 39-yard field goal for a 10-3 State lead on the second play of the second quarter.
Alabama's offense fizzled again, but P.J. Fitzgerald had a nice 40-yard punt to force the Bulldogs to start from their own 12-yard line.
On third and eight from the 16, Henig's pass was picked off by Jeffrey Dukes and returned 24 yards for a touchdown. Christensen's extra point kick tied the game at 10-10 with 11:30 to play in the second quarter.
Henig wasn't intimidated by his interception or by Bama's defense. He came right back with clutch completions on an eight-play, 78-yard drive culminating with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jamayel Smith for a 17-10 lead. Safety Rashad Johnson was out of the game with an injury and the pass went to the man covered by back-up safety Marcus Carter. Henig also had pass completions of 16 yards to Eric Butler and 41 yards to Smith in the drive. The two receptions by Smith in that drive were his only catches of the day.
After an exchange of punts, Alabama returned the pass interception favor. Wilson's pass was picked off by State middle linebacker Quinton Culbertson and returned 51 yards to give State a 24-10 lead with just under three minutes until intermission. Alabama had gone 232 plays without a turnover and 104 passes without an interception prior to the play.
Alabama's nearly three-minute offense was a little slow. The Tide had to overcome a 15-yard penalty (on a second and inches play), but got the same rare penalty called against Mississippi State (illegal helmet to helmet contact0 for a first down at the 15. On first down the Tide got another favorable flag, pass interference in the end zone, giving Bama a first and goal at the State two. However, there were only two seconds remaining. Wilson tried to scramble for the goalline and was stopped short.
Alabama's second half started about as poorly as the first half ended on offense, but the defense was playing much better. After the defense held State, the offense gave up the ball. Wilson made a decent pass to Hall, but the ball came out and was intercepted. The Bulldogs were set up at the Bama 35. But Wallace Gilberry got his first sack of the year, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Zach Schreiber for the Tide.
The Tide used two relatively little-used weapons to drive into State territory. Wilson passed to tight end Travis McCall for nine yards, then fullback Le'Ron McClain ran 15 yards to the Bulldogs' 31. Wilson connected with Hall for 18 yards to the State 12 on a third-and-eight play. But on third down the Tide used a well-worn weapon, the fade route that almost never works. Bama settled for a 26-yard Christensen field goal to trail 24-13 with 7:17 to play in the third quarter.
Alabama got a huge break on a shanked Mississippi State punt, only 16 yards to the Bulldogs' 33. Darby got 13 to the 20. Keith Brown made his first appearance in three weeks and was nabbed for a two-yard loss on an end-around. Wilson to Hall got back six yards, but on third and six at the 16 Wilson couldn't find a receiver and got only two yards on a scramble. Christensen's third field goal of the game, a 31-yarder, cut the deficit to 24-16, with 1:47 to play.
The defense did the job again with Simeon Castille getting a sack on a third and 20 and forcing a State punt. Poor special teams play put Bama at its own 38 for the final play of the third quarter and the offense lost yards, forcing a punt.
Dixon had a 23-yard gain to keep a drive alive and take the ball into Alabama territory at the 32. The defense held, forcing a 45-yard field goal attempt by Carlson that was wide right with 10:02 to play. Alabama was still within a touchdown and two-point conversion.
Starting at the 29, Wilson hit Hall for 18 yards. Hall then dropped one inside the 10, Wilson was sacked for a 10-yard loss, and on third-and-20 a screen pass came up short of the first down. State got the ball back at its 17 with under eight minutes to play.
Again, the Bama defense did its job, forcing a punt with just over a minute having elapsed. Javier Arenas seemed to have a nice return working, but the official whistled him as having touched the turf at the Alabama 38. The clock read 6:41.
Unfortunately, the Bama offense was playing as bad as the defense was playing good. It was three-and-out, a poor punt (25 yards), poorer coverage (a 10-yard return), and the Bulldogs had the ball at the State 45 with 5:32 remaining.
Needing one final defensive stand, Bama couldn't deliver. State drove inside the Alabama 15 while running out the clock. It was just a matter of a couple of knees and State had its win.
One offensive bright spot for Alabama was D.J. Hall having 10 catches for 125 yards, but on a couple of key plays he was unable to make the grab. Dixon was the offensive star for State, 25 runs for 121 yards.