Passing Game Match-Ups Will Be Key Vs. State

It stands to reason that Alabama's game with Mississippi State on Saturday will be decided in the trenches. This is the Southeastern Conference after all.

It just sounds more manly to say that the team that is more dominant physically up front will win. Forget out-smarting or out-running the opponent, the SEC mentality is to repeatedly try to out-muscle the opposition.

That was certainly the case in last year's game, when Mississippi State used its power running game and a strong effort by its defensive line to build a 14-point halftime lead on the way to a 24-16 win. Alabama failed to cash in on a long drive to start the game --- with Tim Castille stopped twice inside the 5 --- and never really recovered.

Now this is not to say that Alabama is incapable of winning the battle at the line of scrimmage against MSU; the Tide certainly is. But the Crimson Tide has been at its best this year --- think Arkansas, Tennessee or the second and third quarters of the LSU game --- when it has made huge plays in the passing game, and prevented the same from its opponent.

With that in mind, here are five key match-ups for Saturday's game:

Alabama WR D.J. Hall vs. MSU DB Demario Bobo

Alabama has done a decent job of moving Hall around this year, but he usually lines up in the slot. That means he is generally covered by a nickel back or safety, not one of the starting cornerbacks.

Hall has been on a tear in the second half of the season, and currently leads the SEC in receiving yards. LSU did as good a job at covering him as anyone, yet he still beat the Tigers for a 67-yard touchdown. Bobo is a former starter at strong safety, but has settled in as the Bulldogs' nickel back this season. He also has experience as a cover corner, which he'll need to hang with Hall.

Alabama RT Mike Johnson vs. MSU DE Titus Brown

Alabama is coming off its worst game of pass protection this year, allowing seven sacks to LSU's dynamic defense. Mississippi State ranks 11th in the SEC with 14 sacks, though Brown has seven of them.

Brown had a dominant day against Alabama last year, beating former starting tackle Chris Capps repeatedly. He had only one sack in that game, but it certainly seemed like he had a lot more.

Johnson has had trouble with speed-rushers this season, notably Greg Hardy of Ole Miss and Everette Brown of Florida State. Look for the Crimson Tide to use backs and tight ends, and possibly right guard B.J. Stabler, to help out on MSU's Brown.

Alabama DE Wallace Gilberry vs. MSU RT J.D. Hamilton

Alabama has been a very streaky pass-rushing team this season, with only five sacks in its first five games, but 12 in its last four. Mississippi State has done a decent job protecting its quarterbacks this season, with just 14 sacks allowed in nine games.

Gilberry has been as streaky as the rest of his team, with most of his sacks coming in bunches. He had three against LSU last week, so there's no reason to think he won't cause havoc against State.

Hamilton has started all nine games this season at right tackle, but he's far from the Bulldogs' best lineman. He probably won't have much one-on-one responsibility against Gilberry.

Alabama LB Darren Mustin vs. MSU RB Anthony Dixon

Alabama seems to have fixed an early-season problem against power-running teams, and did a good job of clamping down on LSU last week. The Bulldogs really did a number on Alabama on the ground last season, particularly early in the game.

The 240-pound Dixon is a particularly big and strong back, not as fast as Darren McFadden (who is?) but just as hard to tackle. He's especially tough in short-yardage situations, and is among the SEC leaders with 12 touchdowns this season.

Mustin is Alabama's headiest linebacker, but not its most talented. He'll need to diagnose plays quickly to help get him and other players in position to shut off MSU's running lanes.

Alabama FS Rashad Johnson vs. MSU QB Wesley Carroll

Alabama gives up a ton of passing yards through the air, but is also among the best teams in the SEC at forcing turnovers. Mississippi State has been exceptional at avoiding interceptions of late.

Johnson is tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions, many when coming over the top on deep sideline or post routes. His recovery speed is probably the best among Alabama's defensive backs, so he's able to gamble at times and get away with it.

Carroll hasn't thrown an interception in 137 attempts this season, one off the NCAA record for freshmen. But he hasn't been asked to throw the ball downfield much, so he might be primed for a few picks if the Bulldogs get behind early.

Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for numerous print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at

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