Vick Ballard is not one to be intimidated.
Not even by the defending national champions. Mississippi State’s junior running back understands what kind of defense awaits him when the No. 17 Bulldogs visit No. 11 Alabama on Saturday, and he understands how crucial it is that he run well against it.
“Somebody’s going to flinch first,” Ballard said, “and I don’t want it to be me.”
He hasn’t flinched yet this season. The team’s leading rusher with 619 yards and 12 touchdowns, Ballard has averaged 113.5 yards over his last four games.
Alabama’s run defense isn’t as stout as it once was. Last year, the Crimson Tide had the top rush defense in the league, allowing 78.1 yards per game.
This season, it’s giving up 125.8 yards per game, which ranks seventh. Nine starters from last year’s defense are gone, so it’s been a struggle at times. LSU ran for 225 yards last week in a 24-21 win that squashed Bama’s hopes of repeating as national champ.
“One thing you watch is LSU was able to do, they made some big plays,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “When opportunities were there to be made, they made them. They hit some long passes on them, and that is a big thing. Nobody is driving up and down the field on Alabama’s defense.”
Ballard has been good at ripping off big runs – he has four of 50-plus yards, three that went for touchdowns. But can that be done against Alabama?
MSU quarterback Chris Relf thinks the passing game will have to more productive Saturday, and big plays could come there.
“I’m going to have to complete a lot of passes in order for us to win,” he said.
MSU uses the no-huddle approach, so establishing a fast pace will be crucial.
Run vs. run
Here’s the big question: Can MSU’s rushing attack match or beat Alabama’s?
The Tide boasts the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, junior Mark Ingram, who’s backed up by sophomore Trent Richardson. Ingram has 641 rushing yards this year, Richardson 634.
That can make for a relentless rushing attack, but for some reason, it hasn’t always been that way. Alabama was held to 36 rushing yards by South Carolina (a loss), 100 yards by Ole Miss (win) and 102 yards by LSU (loss).
That would seem to bode well for MSU, which is giving up just 115.2 rushing yards per game.
“You don’t see the 100-yard days, but you still see both backs averaging over six yards a carry,” MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “You don’t know exactly how shut down their run game has been. Both the guys are still extremely productive. Their runs are all run-efficient by the way that we monitor a run being efficient.”
Ingram (5-foot-10, 215 pounds) and Richardson (5-11, 224), who’s been battling a sore knee all week, are similar runners. They both have speed and toughness.
While there is good reason for concern on MSU’s side, the same can be said for Alabama. These are two strong rushing attacks that garner mutual respect.
“They probably create more negative plays than anybody we’ve played all year,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of State’s defense. “It’s important to get a hat on a hat, and they’re physical up front. So we expect a really tough game on the line of scrimmage.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal