"It's a good win for us and a good win for the program," said QB Mike Henig, who led his head coach over in front of several thousand Bulldog fans for a quick victory cheer. Croom had managed to dodge the obligatory ice-water soaking; the inevitable emotions were impossible to evade, as the Tuscaloosa native wished his late father were around to watch. That would have completed an otherwise perfect return to his home turf.
"I'm so thankful for having this opportunity. Today I was thinking what a blessed person I am, to have grown up in this town, gone to school right across those tracks, to play at Alabama, and to have an opportunity to come back here and coach our Mississippi State football team. And to have a chance to win."
A chance the Bulldogs cashed in, by putting all 24 points on the scoreboard before halftime and making a 14-point margin hold up through an intense second half. Alabama had sufficient opportunities to erase their deficit but managed just a couple of third-quarter field goals. By the last period the Tide was finding first downs as rare as touchdowns, and the Mississippi State defense ended their afternoon with consecutive three-and-punts. "We kept faith and didn't let them in the end zone," DT Deljuan Robinson said. In those pressurized quarters the Dog defense allowed just 94 yards and a lone conversion on seven third downs, preventing Alabama from getting within striking distance of any comeback. In fact the Tide had three fourth-quarter possessions; all ended in punts and the last two after just three snaps.
"I'm especially proud of the second half," said Croom. "You probably wonder why I say that. It's because when you play Alabama that second half is tough. I know because I wore the jersey."
Those wearing white shirts were plenty tough themselves all afternoon, and not just in the last half when defense dominated. State's limping, gimping offensive team answered each Alabama challenge in the opening quarters, shrugging off both a fast Tide field goal and a tying turnover-touchdown that had the tally 10-10 with over 11 minutes to intermission. Instead of playing like a program that had lost 23-consecutive SEC road games, the Bulldog offense made itself comfortably at home.
"It was just responding," said WR Jamayel Smith, whose 13-yard touchdown catch at 8:30 of the second quarter put State in front to stay. "Everybody kept their heads up and just played." Smith did, with 54 yards and a touchdown on his two catches. So did wideout partner Tony Burks with two catches for 34 yards and a score of his own. Three more catchers pulled in passes from Henig, and while the Montgomery native's 9-of-23 line and 143 yards with an interception returned for Alabama's only touchdown didn't re-write records Henig was the right man running this offense, this day.
"I don't know if he had a bad throw," Croom said. "He's a pretty good quarterback."
And Anthony Dixon was a pretty darn good halfback with 121 of State's 131 net rushing yards. His aggressive ground-pounding was the key to balancing out the first-half offense and setting up Henig's timely tosses. "We knew Coach Croom wanted this real bad so all week I made up my mind I was going to run super-hard." Dixon was also the only healthy regular halfback available this week. And while he only netted eight yards, in the last five minutes it was walk-on Justin Williams taking over for Dixon and twice moving the chains, assuring Alabama never got the ball back.
Whether the Tide would have done much with it was another matter. For a second-straight year State's defense held Alabama without an offensive touchdown. The Bulldogs allowed some yards, 288 total and 187 of that off the arm of quarterback John Parker Wilson on 19-of-39 passing. But the numbers that mattered wasn't the completions or yards; it was the 39 throws along with one official sack and several quarterback scrambles where the Dog defense won their battle first.
"They had to throw the football and that's what we wanted to do," said Robinson. "The more it's in the air the more opportunity to get the football." Indeed Wilson was picked twice, and one went for six points to push State's lead out to 24-10. The Tide had to throw with their ground game shackled to 101 net yards, 54 of that by Kenneth Darby.
Alabama was able to get on their scoreboard first, using a short kickoff and good return to drive down to the MSU two-yard line. The end of that series set a tone for the day, as two runs lost ground and DEs Titus Brown and Michael Heard combined to rush Wilson into an incompletion. Jamie Christensen bumped the 19-yard field goal through at 9:52.
The Bulldogs answered with a nine-snap drive covering 70 yards. Dixon got it going on second down with a bounce around the left end for 21 yards, then 14 more on a couple of totes to the Tide 34. The drive nearly ended as Henig's throw hung and Burks had to turn defensive back to prevent an interception. Henig shook it off and found Aubrey Bell for 15 yards to the Alabama 19; and on second down he read-down the progression to spot Burks slanting across. "He was actually the third read," Henig admitted. The throw caught Burks in-stride at the ten and he crossed the goal at 6:34.
"It was really big for us to come out and let the defense know we were going to score some points," OG Brian Anderson said. The unit was motivated enough to force a punt after Robinson made Wilson throw it away on third down. Ashort punt gave State the ball on the 29, and Dixon instantly changed the ends with a 30-yard burst through left guard. TE Eric Butler dropped a screen but pulled in a Henig bullet for 14 yards to the Tide 26. That was far enough that after the quarter changed, on 4th-and-8 Carlson was able to cash in on a 39-yard field goal at 14:14 for a 10-3 Bulldog lead.
It was still a touchdown lead when State got the ball back at 13:14 at their 12-yard line. But after two Dixon tries netted just a couple of yards Henig overthrew an open Burks to Long beyond. "I tried to force it in there," the quarterback admitted. UA's Jeffrey Dukes picked the pass at the 24-yard line and run unchallenged into the end zone at 11:30 to tie the tally. It was a crucial emotional test for State's offense.
"Coach said don't let it get you down, we've got to respond," Henig said. "And that's what we did as an offense." With a 78-yard drive where Henig hooked up with Butler for 16 yards, to Smith for 41 more when the passer was about to get stuck, and then again to Smith in the end zone. The throw cleared one defender, seemed to slice at the last minute, and ended up in the target's hands for a 17-10 lead. "He just put it in the right spot and made me go get it," said Smith. "He saw me beat the safety and just put it there."
A swap of punts later it was the Dog defense's turn to put the ball in the painted turf. On 2nd-and-8 at the Tide 47 Wilson felt Brown coming from the arm side. The rusher arrived just a bit late—"A good thing!" Brown agreed. Because LB Quinton Culberson was able to slip inside the right shoulder of target Will Oakley, intercept, and take off for a 51-yard touchdown return with Brown shielding off Wilson at the five-yard line. "I was the lead blocker," Brown quipped.
Down 24-10 there was still almost three minutes left for Alabama to chop the deficit in half. They nearly did, going from their 23-yard line as far as the Bulldog one. Wilson connected with Hall for 18 yards on a 2nd-and-16, and on 3rd-and-3 Hall pulled in a five-yard toss to keep the chains moving while stopping the clock. Another strike to Hall produced first down on the MSU 30, and DT Antonio Johnson was called for illegal helmet contact to add 15 more yards on the play.
That left nine seconds with one more Tide timeout. Wilson's throw to Oakley in the end zone fell incomplete but FS Jeramie Johnson had hit the target early, making it first-and-goal from the one with 0:02 on the clock. After talking it over Alabama opted to go for six. Wilson took two steps back, saw nothing, and darted forward. "I had a feeling the quarterback was going to try to run something up the middle," LB Jamar Chaney said. Chaney caught him just before the goal line and held him from behind long enough for Culberson and Co. to arrive. Wilson's helmet crossed the plane but the ball did not and the call withstood review to keep it 24-10 at halftime.
"If you want to pick just one play, you can say that one," Croom said.
Yet the defense still had plenty of plays left to make after intermission. They appeared to have made a huge one when CB David Heard came up with a ball UA's Hall couldn't. But two snaps later Henig was sacked into a fumble by Wallace Gilberry with Alabama recovering at their 45-yard line. A drive to State's 12 stalled when both receivers were covered in the end zone and Christensen hit his second three-pointer, from 26 yards at 7:17. He added a third field goal from 31 yards out at 1:47 after a shanked punt set up the short drive.
State's defense was at its Dogged best in the final period, which began with Alabama on their 44-yard line. On third down DE Titus Brown, another Tuscaloosa native, made Wilson unload for a completion that lost yards. The MSU offense created a chance to push the margin beyond a touchdown and two-point play when Dixon bolted for 23 yards, but Adam Carlson's 45-yard field goal attempt drifted right at 10:02. Taking over at their 29 the Tide got one first down on a 19-yard catch by D.J. Hall but this time Brown sacked Wilson, and his blocker, for loss of ten and a screen pass only got to midfield so Alabama punted.
"Our coaches were on us real hard and telling us to go finish this half out and play like there was no tomorrow," Culberson said.
The pressure only increased after the Bulldogs punted it back at 6:41. Alabama wasted first down with a Darby dive, then the much-maligned MSU secondary covered the field on consecutive incompletions. At 4th-and-8 with two timeouts and almost six minutes left Alabama played it safe and punted. Just 25 yards, to the MSU 45. All the Dog offense did was completely unwind the clock. Henig came through for one third-down conversion by hitting Lance Long for a dozen yards to the Tide 40-yard line.
Then it was walk-on Williams' turn, slashing through right guard on 3rd-and-4 for eight yards and again on 3rd-and-4 with a six-yard draw after Alabama had burned their last timeout. Ninety seconds later the job was done.
"I know this," Croom said. "I know we wanted this more than we've wanted a football game since I've been here." And the Bulldogs got it. Now, they get a whole week to enjoy their first SEC road victory in six years…and to do some serious healing over the open date. It might take all the extra time for State to come down from this long-awaited, much-needed success.
"If I had to pick one game to win this year this would have been it," said Montgomery native Henig. "Now we've got two left."