The #5 (CFP rankings) Crimson Tide built a 19-0 lead midway of the second quarter, and add just enough second half padding to knock off the #1-ranked Bulldogs. With the first setback of this season Mississippi State is 9-1, 5-1 SEC and dragged back into a tie (loss column) for the Western Division lead.
Alabama (9-1, 6-1) continued their second-half-season surge to match Mississippi State as one-loss SEC teams atop the standings. But the Crimson Tide also grabbed the all-important tiebreak too, as well as assured themselves of top-four status in the next round of College Football Playoff rankings. Prescott even referred to this game as a ‘playoff’ in itself, though the Bulldogs are far from eliminated from post-season pictures.
If not for being coach of the losing team, Dan Mullen might have enjoyed the action at Bryant-Denny Stadium professionally speaking. “It was really a well-fought ball game. Those were two very good football teams out there playing.”
Mullen’s “well-fought” did not translate to “well-played” in Mississippi State’s case, particularly on offense. The Bulldogs chose this showdown to make uncharacteristic errors, commit mistakes both forced and not, and generally put themselves behind the chains and the eight ball too often. Prescott took the big Dog’s share of responsibility with three interceptions, one in the Alabama end zone and another at the Tide 15-yard line on a deflection. The first, in the second quarter, was at the 22.
“I mean we had (chances), I can’t turn over the ball like I did,” Prescott said. “Those are just stupid turnovers.” If not a turnover, Prescott was equally angry at himself for throwing too early in State’s first goal line chance, and missing wide-open TE Malcolm Johnson in the end zone.
Prescott did throw for both Bulldog touchdowns, and ended up with 290 yards on 27-of-48 attempts. But the fact he had to toss the ball 48 times said so much about why State struggled to score. Alabama’s defense was rated best in the SEC coming in and showed why, holding the Bulldog’s proud ground game to 138 net yards on 40 running plays. When MSU was forced to go aerial so often, they were hamstringing themselves.
”It’s hard to think you’re going to drive at-will on an excellent defense like Alabama,” Mullen said. “That ended up being a huge factor.” RB Josh Robinson came in with a 109-yard average; he mustered 37 yards on 12 totes. Prescott had 82 on 22 carries, called or otherwise.
There was another and maybe larger reason to State’s reliance on throwing more. The Bulldogs were just about always beginning in a field position hole. The average first-half starting spot was the 15, and while things got better in the second half the field was clearly leaning Alabama’s way. Some was obviously because the Tide defense forced fast and short series. The rest?
”The MVP of the game is probably Alabama’s punter,” said Mullen. J.K. Scott netted 45.6 yards on his seven kicks, repeatedly flipping the field even after State made a stop. The Bulldogs did themselves no favors with poor kickoff return results, too.
Superior positioning allowed Alabama to play the game their way while building that lead. Their offense didn’t score a touchdown until the sixth series, but didn’t really need to. The defense even provided the first points. After being pinned at the five-yard line by Scott, the Dogs got caught in an ill-executed sweep play by Robinson. WR Fred Ross, motioning right-to-left, got hung up at the snap behind left guard and Robinson tried to bounce around him. Trey DePriest was credited with the safety at 7:49.
”I knew where I was,” Robinson said. “I was trying to get back to the line of scrimmage but they caught me off-guard.” Or tackle as it turned out. Regardless, the ensuing free kick gave Alabama’s offense a short field for a medium-distance drive and field goal at 2:06.
The game really turned against State in the second period though, after another three-and-through. At their 39 and with the ‘1B’ Dog defense on the field, quarterback Blake Sims curved running back Jalston Fowler into the underneath coverage for a catch-and-run worth 35 yards. With first and goal on the four he went to all-world flanker Amari Cooper who was too much for S Jay Hughes to handle in the end zone.
And a series later starting just their side of the 50-yard stripe, Sims went for the jugular. As in Cooper, who went up between Hughes and S Kendrick Market for a fabulous catch at the one-yard line. Derrick Henry was stripped by Brown at the goal line but review showed he’s scored, for the 19-0 lead.
Sims was more than efficient in the air, going 19-of-31 for 211 yards with no turnovers. But he broke the Bulldogs backs in the fourth quarter with his feet. With a 19-13 scoreboard, Sims converted three big third downs with a short pass and two scrambles directly at the marker. From there T.J. Yeldon did the rest with four of his 16 carries getting the last 29 yards and the clinching touchdown. Yeldon had a relatively quiet game with 72 yards, and shared snaps with a still-tender ankle.
Yet, the Bulldogs were able to make it a game after the awful start. First because the defense kept things from getting utterly out of control despite being backed-up too often. “We executed the plan we always had coming into the game, and played hard,” said Brown.
Also, Prescott still made plays. The first State series even produced consecutive first downs, and it was just a 5-0 margin when Prescott threw the first pick in the second period, caught by Nick Perry at the 21. Down 19-0, he got a real drive going from the 25—not coincidentally the best starting position of the whole half—with some sharp throws. A 11-yard completion to WR De’Runnya Wilson had the Dogs first-and-goal on the one and Alabama was off-sides on the first down to boot.
But LG Justin Malone jumped the hike. Back on the five, it had to be throws and Prescott missed all three shots including the open look at Johnson which in retrospect could have changed so much. PK Evan Sobiesk did get his team on the scoreboard with a 23-yard field goal.
Sobiesk was back on the field to finish the first drive of the second half too, though this was also a letdown after the Dogs reached the 14. The 32-yard field goal was good at 12:06. When Alabama missed a three-point try State was moving again, 65 yards on ten snaps. Then from the Tide 15 with second down, Prescott fired for the left pylon and Wilson.
Mullen agreed the receiver was pushed out of bounds but nothing was called, and Prescott’s throw went right to Cyrus Jones in the end zone. “Stupid,” Prescott said. “Just throw it out the back of the end zone, trying to force something there.”
And still State wasn’t done as three incomplete Sims throws gave the ball to WR Fred Ross to return to the Tide 38. Prescott ran for 22, Robinson for a combined 12 more, then after changing ends Prescott caught Ross slanting across for the touchdown.
But Sims rose to the occasion with the 15-play touchdown drive and while the two-point pass missed 25-13 was enough margin. Because on the tenth play of a fast drive Prescott’s 2nd-and-10 pass was tipped and caught by Alabama’s Landon Collins at the 15. The Tide used 1:43 on three snaps, giving State the ball back on the 28.
So, while Prescott managed one more touchdown drive it needed a fourth-down throw to WR Jameon Lewis to finish and left just 15 seconds. The on-sides kick was recovered by Alabama’s DeAndrew White with the Dogs flagged for a blocking foul anyway…though Alabama had also blocked illegally on the kick with nothing called.
Considering the terrible beginning and field position imbalance, it was all the more amazing that Mississippi State ran more plays (88 to 63) and had 428 yards to 335. This was why coach and club alike could all wonder…what if? “We just beat ourselves,” Robinson said. “We made a lot of mental mistakes.”
Without demeaning the Tide defense, Dogs also fumed about their own failures in the red zone with two touchdowns in six chances. “That’s potentially 42 points,” Mullen said. “If we just score touchdowns in the red zone it wouldn’t have been a close game.”
”Give Alabama a lot of credit, they did the things you needed to do to win. They made more plays at the end than we did.” And, fewer turnovers as in zero. Only the goal-line strip came close to being a fumble, and Sims threw nothing to the wrong team.
What Mullen did not think his team did wrong, was prepare. Nor was emotion an issue, just the opposite. “Our guys were fired-up and ready to go make plays,” the coach said. “Those were two of the best teams in the country out there battling and there’s absolutely no doubt about that. And it was a great game.”
Just not great in the way Bulldogs had hoped, as their record was finally blemished and a 12-game win streak snapped. Yet if these players didn’t know how to really handle defeat, neither did they sound done-in by the first stumble.
“The goal is to go on,” Prescott said. “And we still have a chance to win the SEC West.”