"We played hard," said defensive end Titus Brown, "but obviously we came up short."
It took no great insight to know when this game was won, and lost. Alabama knocked loose the opening kickoff return of the second half from State's Derek Pegues and ran the fumble in for one touchdown; then just four Bulldog snaps later intercepted a short Mike Henig pass and returned it for another.
"Basically, that's the ball game," said Coach Sylvester Croom. A ball game that, up to then, the coach honestly believed was hanging within Bulldog grasp. "If we don't have those two bad plays to start the third quarter we would have had a chance to win at the end of the game."
Perhaps, though with State only able to manufacture 103 total yards all evening it was reasonable to wonder if the Bulldogs would have scored anything, any time on the top-rated defense in the SEC. But once those turnover-touchdowns went up on the board it was, as Croom acknowledged, "Game over."
And abruptly over just when State was looking like a team capable of an SEC upset. By forcing a pair of early turnovers of their own, and with some timely defensive stops, State got into the dressing room down only the three points scored off Tide kicker Jamie Christensen's foot at 8:31 of the second quarter. The Bulldogs were unable to generate any points of their own and netted just 60 yards in the opening two periods. Still the 3-0 scoreboard had put some spark in these heavy under-Dogs, especially after the defense stopped Alabama on fourth down inside the MSU red zone.
"We came out the second half and our kids were on fire," commented Croom. But it took barely seven seconds to douse any flames. Freshman Pegues caught the kickoff at his five-yard line and got to the 15 where Tide freshman and Brookhaven native Jimmie Johns first stood Pegues up and then stripped the ball. Matt Miller snared the short-hop with nothing but those 15 yards of open turf between himself and the goal line. Christensen's PAT made the margin 10-0 at 14:53.
"I didn't even see when the ball came out," Croom said, "I thought the play was over. The big thing is we didn't get the guy blocked that made the play. We knew he was a key factor and we didn't make the play."
If that turnover-TD by the return team was a body blow, the next one provided by a struggling offense was the knockout. On a 2nd-and-13 freshman quarterback Mike Henig, making his first college start, was pressured on a screen-pass play, tripped up, and while falling tried to flip the ball in the general direction of halfback Jerious Norwood. "Inside the 20 you don't want to take a sack," said Henig, "It was the only place I could throw the ball away."
Except he threw it directly into the belly of defensive tackle Rudy Griffin, who caught the gift and rumbled untouched 17 yards the other way for the 17-0 lead. There was still 12:46 left in the third quarter and a whole period afterwards, but the outcome had been decided and both sidelines knew it.
Or as Croom said, "Because once we're in a situation where we can't run it and chip away and have to throw it, it's pretty much over." It was an accurate forecast because with Alabama free to defend the field as they pleased State was unable to drive beyond their own 46-yard line on eight other turns with the ball. The Bulldogs collected only eight first downs all evening.
"They're a great defense, they did everything we studied for them to do," said Henig. "They're as fast as I thought they were." Maybe even a bit faster, such as when harassing the redshirt-rookie quarterback into 9-of-28 passing with three interceptions and a couple of sacks. Henig finished with just 78 yards for his pains.
"I thought he ran the team well early," said Croom, "then some situations happened. There were a couple of times where he missed throws because he just couldn't see, they were tall and had hands in his face and he had to move earlier sometimes just to see. But overall I thought he kept us in the ball game."
Tide speed also showed in shackling Norwood to 39 net yards on 18 carries. Norwood not only had a three-game string of 100-yard outings ended, his longest haul was a dozen yards and that deep on the MSU end of the field. There simply was no room on the ends and not much in the middle. "Every time it seemed Jerious was coming out of there they'd have a guy show up, because they have great speed," Croom said.
State's best, and as it turned out only offensive chance to score came early in the second quarter after the Dog defense had forced a turnover—one of thee MSU takeaways. With Alabama driving late in the first period end Willie Evans raced in for an arm-side sack of quarterback Brodie Croyle that left the ball rolling on the turf in front of Brown. "I thought it was an incomplete pass but everybody was hollering!" said Brown, who picked up the loose pigskin and took off. If he hadn't been a bit winded already the sophomore might have made it, but Tide tailback Kenneth Darby caught him after 44 yards at the UA 19.
But the offense could not cash in what the defense gave them, facing fourth down at the 10-yard line. With placekicker Keith Andrews sidelined a second game by a groin injury the State staff had decided in practice week what to do. "We said all week if it's two or less we're going for it all night across the 50-yard line," Croom explained, "simply because I knew we weren't going to get a lot of opportunities to get down there."
So on 4th-and-1 "It was a fake dive and I rolled out," Henig said. "I saw the guy on Jerious come to me and I just dished it off. I could have put a little more touch on it and it would have been good for the touchdown." Instead the line-shot was a bit behind Norwood and shoulder-high where he could not secure the ball.
Getting the ball back on downs at 13:37, Alabama put together the only point-producing drive of the day by either offense. Darby juked by safety Jeremie Johnson for 26 yards, and on third-and-12 at their 37 the Tide caught a break when a short catch netted only four yards but cornerback Jamaal Johnson was called for a late hit out-of-bounds. Croom was angry at the time but later apologized to Johnson and the team, having seen on replay how shaky the call was.
Still Alabama was advanced to State's 44 regardless, and after backup halfback Johns bolted 23 yards to the 14 it took a sack of Croyle on third down by linebacker Clarence McDougal to stop the surge. Christensen knocked a 38-yard attempt through the uprights at 8:31 for all the first-half scoring. He would miss a 32-yard try late in the third period. Alabama had 222 yards at halftime and 15 first downs but only those three points as State's defense put in their best effort of the season. "We had to play very physical with them and be tougher than they were," said Brown. "We showed that tonight."
The Dog defense also forced atypical errors from the efficient Alabama offense. On the first series Croyle snapped off double-digit gains repeatedly with perfect passes, until he overthrew Keith Brown and Jeramie Johnson was positioned perfectly for the interception. Croyle came in with only two picks in eight games; he matched that total this evening as cornerback Kevin Dockery would intercept him in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
But none of the giveaways came back to burn ‘Bama, and the offense could play it safe all the second half after being staked to the three-score margin. The Tide finished with 298 net yards, Croyle was 14-of-22 for 116 yards, and Darby skittered and scampered for 122 of his team's rushing yardage. For all that State made enough stops, most notably near the end of the second period after Alabama got to the 12-yard line. On 3rd-and-short Darby was stopped at right guard by Quinton Culberson; and on a fourth-down sneak Croyle had the ball come loose in a pileup with the spot even farther back of the mark.
"I'm proud of the way we played today, we held Alabama's offense to three points," Croom said. "That could easily have been another 21 points in the second half if our defense let up at all."
The defense didn't give up, but neither was any help forthcoming from their offensive counterparts. "I thought we drove the first time and did some good things as an offense," said Henig. "I thought I made some good reads the first quarter." Things got harder from there though and Henig would be intercepted again in the third period as Simeon Castile made a superb diving pick across midfield after State got to their own 46.
Omarr Conner took a few turns in relief of Henig at various times, but was just 1-of-2 passing for a yard's net loss and managed five yards on three rushes. Seven Dogs caught passes, the longest a 21-yard grab by tight end Jason Husband. Nobody got close to crossing the UA goal line, of course. And once State fell behind 17-0 the passing game became even more problematic.
"Because we had no chance to protect against that pressure that they bring," Croom said. "Our entire gameplan was to run right at them consistently, try to keep the game close. We had a few patterns we thought we could make some plays on to keep the ball moving."
Instead the Bulldogs made no progress on the field, the scoreboard, or the record book, losing for a fifth time to a ranked opponent and barely breaking 100 yards of offense. It wasn't how State wanted to go into the coming open date, of course. "It's emotional when the record is bad," said Brown. "But you can't help that, you have to go out week-by-week and play better."