A crowd of 82,167 and national TV audience watched Alabama gain bowl eligibility, while MSU is assured of a fourth-straight losing season. "It was a big game for both sides," Croom said. "They did what it took to win."
There was nothing fancy about what the Crimson Tide did to win this one, unless handing the ball off to a fast, agile tailback counts as trickery. Sophomore Ken Darby had a remarkable evening, running for 200 yards on 36 carries and gaining the most ground yards against State since Texas' Ricky Williams had 203 in the 1999 Cotton Bowl. Darby rolled up 150 of his yards by halftime, including a 14-yard touchdown burst in the second quarter that put Alabama in control.
"He's a scatback," DE Willie Evans said, "but if you don't wrap up and tackle well he'll get away from you." With Darby doing the honors Alabama lived up to their status as the SEC's leading rushing team, more than doubling the Dogs on the ground 260 yards to 126. Jerious Norwood finished with 96 of State's rushing yards and the only running touchdown, in the process climbing to ninth on the school rushing chart. But the junior tailback was essentially shut down in the second half.
So was the whole MSU offense, after scoring on a 28-yard touchdown toss from Omarr Conner to Tee Milons five minutes into the third quarter to pull within 17-14. The rest of the evening produced three punts, a game-clinching fumble, and loss-on-downs with just 45 yards for five possessions.
"I thought our kids played hard, but we didn't play well all the time," Croom said.
During game-week the head coach wasn't concerned about his team's effort, as long as they did not get caught up in hype and hoopla over Croom's return to both his hometown and alma mater. He succeeded there. "He said it wasn't personal," Milons reported. "He said it was 22 men between the lines and who wanted it the most."
Nor was Mississippi State shy about challenging Alabama's top-ranked defense, choosing to take the opening kick and go on the attack. "We wanted to make a statement," Croom said. And his offense did. A Norwood run of seven yards and Milons reception for 24 more moved the ball at midfield, where on 2nd-and-9 Norwood turned a routine handoff into a special play.
After a step to left guard the junior instantly cut the other way, rounded the right side and found his seam back down the center of the field. Norwood beat angling safety Roman Harper to the goal line at 13:16 for a 50-yard scoring dash. "I thought that would give both units some juice," Croom said.
In fact the 7-0 lead lasted out the opening period as Dog-ged defense did produce a pair of Tide punts, and kept the field position battle in balance. But in retrospect this was where State also failed to take control. "I thought if we could have got up 14 points we'd have had an excellent opportunity to win the game," Croom said. "And we blew those opportunities."
And before the quarter ended Alabama was finally on the move, reaching the MSU 31-yard line. Darby bolted through the left side (vacated by a blitzing cornerback) for 22 yards. After swapping ends the Tide faced 3rd-and-goal at the MSU seven. After Pennington's lob for Keith Brown was long, Brian Bostick bumped a 24-yard field goal through at 14:12 to get Alabama on the board.
The momentum really started turning the wrong way as a MSU motion penalty negated a 16-yard catch by flanker Will Prosser and stalled a drive. Alabama got the ball back and took four plays to cover 82 yards. A 44-yard burst by Darby reversed the field and on first down at the MSU 22 receiver Tyrone Prothro lined up under center, keeping the ball around right end. LB Quinton Culberson was unable to knock him out at the pylon and prevent the go-ahead touchdown at 10:17.
"We started missing tackles," LB Gabe O'Neal said. "Missing assignments. They just lined up and ran us over."
Nor could the Bulldogs answer offensively, though twice Norwood got necessary third-down yards. A seven-yard sack and false start set up 3rd-and-22 at State's 31. Fred Reid only got back to the line and Cook bounced a 56-yard punt at 5:59. Alabama needed just two of those minutes to extend the lead.
Because a first down later cornerback Kevin Dockery lost track of a deep strike and Brown pulled in a 40-yard catch at the 32-yard line. A 14-yard Darby run had State calling for time, but when play resumed Darby bolted untouched through left guard for a 18-yard touchdown and 17-7 score. The Bulldogs were lucky not to trail by more at intermission, needing a Dockery interception of Pennington at 1:13.
The locker room break apparently did the Dogs good as the defense forced a short punt, and the offense again opened a half by scoring. Conner scrambled for one first down and Norwood got 14 more yards, though he noticeably limped afterwards. On second down Conner play-faked beautifully as Milons got a step on Ramzee Robinson and made the leaping grab in the end zone at 10:06. Things were looking up again.
"The defense shut them down, the offense made a play," Croom said. "I thought we were right back in the game. But again, Alabama answered."
Immediately. Pennington managed to avoid pressure and hit Prothro on a slant pattern for 22 yards, with 15 yards tacked on for a personal foul. Dockery broke up a throw in the end zone so Alabama settled for a 34-yard field goal and six-point margin, but the Tide was turning for good as State wasted a break. Brandon Brooks fumbled a punt away, giving the Dogs possession at the UA 41-yard line.
Conner was sacked on third down back to midfield and Cook shanked a 14-yard punt. An intentional grounding call moved the Tide backwards, and CB David Heard out-fought D.J. Hall at the two-yard line for a second State interception. That only delayed things, however, as long as it took for State to punt, Prothro to return the kick 19 yards, and Bostick to hit a 47-yard field goal at 7:19.
Any hopes of staying in the game ended when Reid was stripped by Mark Anderson, giving the Tide first-and-goal at State's nine-yard line. Three snaps later Pennington flipped a pass to Leron McClain for the touchdown and final margin. Pennington finished with 119 yards on 9-of-15 passing, with the pair of picks.
Conner was 7-of-20 for 114 yards and the touchdown, but was sacked five times. State netted just 240 total yards, and of that 137 came on the only two scoring series at the start of each half. Taking those possessions away, the Bulldogs managed just 103 yards on the other 51 snaps.
"They settled in and just started making plays," Conner said. "That's why they're the number-one defense in the nation."
And, combined with a reliable running game, why Alabama was able to earn bowl-eligibility while the Bulldogs left Tuscaloosa assured of a fourth-straight losing season. State also lost a 16th-straight SEC road game, though this one did receive more attention than the others due to Croom's presence on the visiting sideline. Still State players said their bottom line wasn't to win one for the coach, but to try to win something for themselves and the program.
"We just wanted to play well on the road," Milons said. "Coach said hold nothing back, just give it all you've got. We did but unfortunately we didn't come out on top."