Small wonder Croom, who endured Alabama's last-gasp, 38-second series with pacing and praying, couldn't resist lifting the 250-pound Brown after the defensive end had dropped ‘Bama quarterback John Wilson at 0:06 and those remaining seconds had run off. "And it's probably going to be the last," Croom said. "Because I probably won't be able to straighten up in the morning."
Whatever the state of his back Sunday, nobody needed worry about the coach's emotional health after his team whipped his alma mater. While Croom wasn't as openly emotional with media as he was a year ago following a 24-16 win in Tuscaloosa, this clearly meant almost as much to him and certainly more to a 2007 team with much higher aspirations than merely knocking off a ranked SEC rival.
"It's a big win," said linebacker Gabe O'Neal, a member of Croom's first recruiting class and one of a handful of remaining seniors hoping to cap their careers with a bowl experience. "I really haven't got the words to explain."
"We tried to downplay it the whole week," safety Derek Pegues said. "But we knew it was a big game and how much it meant to Coach Croom. We just went out and tried to do our best and we were able to come up with a win."
Brown, O'Neal, Pegues, and the rest of the Dog defense led the way in getting that win. They managed to contain Alabama's potent offense to 274 yards on 72 snaps, and much more meaningfully to keep the Tide out of State's end zone. All Alabama scoring came off the foot of placekicker Leigh Tiffin with four field goals.
"They threw their best punches at us and still didn't get into the end zone," said Brown, a Tuscaloosa native who has been on MSU defenses that have held Alabama without an offensive touchdown now for three-straight years. "We played with more intensity and pride and came out with a W."
The defense also provided State's single most important piece of points, too, on a 100-yard interception return for touchdown by cornerback Anthony Johnson four seconds before intermission. That play turned a 9-3 Dog deficit into a 10-9 lead that State didn't give up in an intense second half.
"Safe to say that was the biggest play of the game," said O'Neal, who actually had alerted Johnson to watch for the flat-route. "It reminded me of the goal-line stand (at Alabama) last year. We went in with the momentum after a bad first half."
Well, not all that bad…though the opening periods, in fact the opening series, saw State's offense at far-less than the best. It produced the first '07 interception thrown by quarterback Wesley Carroll, which stopped him one un-picked pass short of the NCAA record to begin a career at 137. The rest of the half Carroll & Co. managed 117 total yards and a field goal by Adam Carlson, that only after falling behind 9-0.
Yet even there Mississippi State was still playing to its all-game strengths, if not by design. "Our defense bailed us out the first half," said Carroll. "We saw they threw the best they had at us and we were only down a score or two and we hadn't played to our potential." Then in the third quarter the offense took advantage of another forced turnover and short field to produce a touchdown blast by halfback Anthony Dixon. It was all the points the Bulldogs would need over the remaining 26 minutes of game-clock.
Carroll shook off his first college turnover to complete nine of the other 20 throws for exactly 100 yards. He was only sacked once, though hit often, and didn't put his defense in bad field positions. And even though Alabama had 23 first downs to State's 14, the Bulldogs ended up with just a minute less of possession time. Which was also part of the game-plan.
As Carroll explained, "You take a lot out of their offense when they're on the sideline." Key to that was the reliable running of Dixon (26 carries, 84 yards) and Christian Ducre (12, 42). If their stats were workman-like, that was the job the Dogs wanted to do…especially as neither fumbled the ball away, nor the rest of the offense for that matter.
"It just showed my coaches haven't lost faith in me," said Dixon, who had lost four fumbles over the previous two games. "I knew he would come back to me and allow me to carry it in the crunch." Dixon did indeed deliver two first-downs and Ducre another in State's final possession, which ate up six whole minutes and left the Tide insufficient time for the sort of game-winning drives they'd pulled off in earlier contests.
Tide tailback and Mississippi native Terry Grant got 75 rushing yards and former Bulldog Jonathan Lowe another 40. The 153 ground yards were a bit more than Alabama typically musters, which reflected an atypically tough day for Tide quarterback John Wilson. He was 16-of-34 for only 121 yards, far under his record season-pace, with interceptions by Johnson and Pegues that completely spun the day in State's favor. And even the completions were not the fast and long strikes ‘Bama thrives on; Wilson's longest hook-up was for 20 yards.
"(Coordinator Ellis) Johnson knew the weaknesses of their offense," Brown said, as State mixed up three- and four-man rushes with more true pressure packages than seen this year. "We came with the blitz and made plays. I think they got a little frustrated and started running more than passing." Which of course kept the clock moving the way State wanted.
"We did a great job keeping their receivers out of rhythm," Croom said. As well as out of the end zone. D.J. Hall had five catches for just 46 yards while Matt Caddell got 53 yards on three balls. MSU wideouts didn't make any great gainers either, but all turned possession receivers as needed to keep the chains—and clock--moving.
It didn't start out that way as Carroll's first pass was picked by Tyrone King, giving Alabama the ball on State's 34-yard line. "It wasn't so much the coverage as I looked at the wrong guy, that's all," Carroll said. A couple of Grant runs got a first down before incompletions had the Tide settling for a 39-yard field goal at 12:01. A series later Tiffin was given another opportunity, this time from 51 yards out, and was just as good for a 6-0 lead at 8:25.
Yet even this was a relative success for State. "We forced them to kick field goals and give the ball back to the offense," Brown said. Which finally got a little something going as Ducre busted a 14-yard draw and Carroll kept for the first down. It seemed to loosen the quarterback as he found Tony Burks for 16 yards and Brandon McRae for 17 more.
"I told him we're going to win or lose this game with you, so settled down and let's go," Croom said he told Carroll, who admitted to early jitters. "After the first quarter we pulled it together, we made our drives that counted." Though this one ended at Alabama's 31 yard line on a bobbled snap, Carlson pooch-punted to the Tide 14. A trio of punts later Wilson got a second-quarter drive going with throws of 20 and 15 yards.
Again the surge stopped and Tiffin chipped through the 29-yarder at 8:46 for a 9-0 lead. State nearly gave away the ensuing short kickoff with Arnil Stallworth falling on the loose ball at the 30-yard line. Which was helpful as the Bulldogs manufactured their first points on a 11-play drive. Carroll converted long third downs with completions of 13 to Tony Burks and 19 more to Jamayel Smith, getting close enough for Adam Carlson to make good on a 35-yard field goal at 4:12.
Soon the Bulldogs were hoping to get into the locker room only down nine points again as Wilson whipped his team from their 20-yard line to within six feet of State's goal, on draw-runs by Lowe and quick completions. The Bulldogs aided with a substitution foul and a roughing call on Titus Brown that had the Tide on State's 15-yard line with 69 ticks left. Alabama even faked a time-out call there to try to get the Dogs in a short-handed defense, which almost worked. It certainly increased the home-crowd ire, already high over non-flagged holds of Brown and other Dog linemen.
Wilson snuck for first down and goal on the three-yard line at 0:34. Two Grant dives netted a yard and Alabama really stopped the clock at 0:21. A year ago in a very similar end-of-half situation Wilson was stopped on a delay-keeper; this time he dropped to throw but was blitzed by Brown into a hurried throw for tight end Preston Dial. "I rushed up the field and got in his face," Brown said. "I didn't know it was picked until the crowd started roaring, then I tried to hold the quarterback down so he couldn't get up and make a tackle."
Of Johnson, who caught the floater two steps inside his goal line and immediately headed for the other one 100-plus yards distant. "After I came out of the end zone and knew #85 was behind me, I knew I was gone," said Johnson, who really only had to get by an offensive lineman. "And I knew he wasn't going to make it!" His 100-yard return broke the 1937 record of Jack Nix (97 yards against Ole Miss) and staked State to a 10-9 intermission lead.
"I've never seen our halftime locker room so fired-up," Carroll said. "It was so easy to just move on from that." Especially when the defense came through with another game-changing turnover as on third down Wilson overthrew Caddell. Pegues was waiting behind the play. "I saw it all the way, Coach Cheese (Charlie Harbison) coached at Alabama last year and he kept telling me watch the quarterback's eyes because he stares down receivers. I was able to come up with the play." And a 40-yard return that had the Bulldogs starting on Alabama's 25-yard line.
"We had to get a touchdown, a turnover like that in that territory you really want seven," Dixon said. The offense did just that. On 3rd-and-4 fullback Eric Hoskins slipped free for a catch-and-run down to the nine-yard line. Dixon got the rest on two runs, hurdling a safety for six and then going right-end for the touchdown and 17-9 lead at 11:35. "It was a read-play, everybody was slanting on the line and first gap I saw I was supposed to hit it."
Carlson's bouncing kickoff was downed on Alabama's 15-yard line. "We were more concerned about their kicking game, we thought that would be their fastest way to score," Croom said. Wilson scrambled for one first down and snuck for another, and a counter by Grant moved the ball to midfield. Pegues broke up a 3rd-and-6 throw to Brown and Alabama punted to the 16-yard line. A pair of Dixon chain-moves didn't get to midfield but gave McAdams room to work with; his lucky bounce was downed by Jasper O'Quinn on the one-yard line, a net 53-yard effort.
Aided by an offsides Alabama dug out of the hole with Wilson calling his own number for 13 yards. A short completion nearly turned into big trouble as the ball was fumbled, but Pegues only knocked it out trying for the scoop and return at the 17-yard line. The fourth period found Wilson throwing it away on 3rd-and-10.
State burned barely a minute of clock, Carroll caught a big break as his third-down force should have been intercepted by Rashad Johnson at the 30-yard line. McAdam's punt only got out the MSU 47, but Wilson was hurried into three unloads and Alabama punted into the end zone at thirteen minutes of the game clock. State had to kick it back and McAdams loosed a beauty of 51 yards with no roll.
Alabama's best, and though they didn't know it last, chance to regain control began at 10:45 and ended at State's 33-yard line where Lowe was snared by Dominic Douglas for a five-yard loss, then Wilson was caught on a keeper. Tiffen snuck his 50-yarder over the crossbars at 6:47 for a five-point margin but they needed another turn to have a chance. The Bulldog offense didn't allow it. Carroll made a clutch throw to tight end Dezmond Sherrod, his first catch this senior year, where Dixon could dive another yard for one first down; then the halfback did it again on 2nd-and-1 at the Tide 48-yard line.
The Tide used timeout #2 at 3:01 with State facing 3rd-and-10. As the Dogs lined up with Ducre alone in the backfield everybody in the house knew what was coming—a delay handoff just as at Auburn two months ago. "They were coming, they had a feel for the draw play," said Carroll. "And it didn't matter. He read it perfectly and got a big first down." By busting off left-end for 11 yards. It was State's last first down, too.
But when McAdams' punt went into the end zone there was just 0:38 on the clock. Not that Croom was confident yet. "Because it ain't over until it's over. I played at Alabama and Alabama has always come up with stuff like that, as long as there is time on the clock they're still in the game." As a 19-yard throw to Caddell and 15-yard keeper showed. Wilson spiked the ball at 0:14.
He only had one snap left though. Forced to scramble and look long he was fair game for Brown to get the only official sack of the day. Six seconds wasn't enough for Alabama to even line up and spike a ball. And before Brown could catch a breath he was being raised on the coach's right shoulder.
"It was crazy, he was just excited," Brown said. He got a bit excited himself as once on the ground teammates piled on their senior co-captain to the point he couldn't breath. "But it was a sign of joy."
Joy shared by every Bulldog in the packed house and a few thousand more who couldn't get tickets but partied in the Junction during and after the victory. Croom said that the '24 Hour Rule' regarding post-game attitudes remains in force this week as well, as Mississippi State has to prepare for a road trip to Arkansas and the annual season-ending bloodletting at home with Ole Miss.
Yet even the hard-nosed coach allowed some of his own emotions to show after a second-straight win over the program he was an All-American and assistant coach for. "We've got bragging rights so when I take Momma to dinner (in Alabama) I don't have to say anything," Croom said. Then, smiling, "But if I want to, I can!"