By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Mississippi State’s belief, strong as it was, carried no weight with No. 1 Alabama.
The No. 13-ranked Bulldogs (7-1, 3-1 SEC), who were off to their best start in 13 years, saw their upset hopes crushed early in a 38-7 loss to the Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0) in front of 101,821 at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night.
Over the past few days, MSU fans had started a movement online built around the phrase “We Believe” – that is, they believed the Bulldogs could upset the reigning national champions, who entered the game as 22-point favorites.
That belief was somewhat justified given how well MSU had started the season. It entered the game No. 11 in the BCS rankings and had played its best football of the season the previous two games in wins over Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State.
But Alabama’s offense mowed through MSU, scoring on its first three possessions for a 21-0 lead by the 13-minute, 33-second mark of the second quarter.
“Our fans, they believed in us. We didn’t just believe, I think our guys expected (to win),” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. “They were very, very disappointed, and they’re going to have to see how they respond to this.”
The bad start was too much for MSU to overcome against the nation’s top-rated defense. State’s offense went three-and-out on four consecutive possessions in the second quarter and could never mount a rally.
Alabama’s offense went quiet for a while, too, but got a 34-yard field goal by Jeremy Shelley to take a 24-0 lead into halftime. MSU’s defense played well after the poor start, but it was too late.
MSU quarterback Tyler Russell, who had looked very sharp for three straight weeks, had a tough night. He took quite a few hits as Alabama manhandled the Bulldogs’ offensive tackles, Blaine Clausell and Charles Siddoway, both of whom momentarily left the game shaken up in the first half.
Russell was 15 of 30 for 169 yards and an interception. MSU finished with 256 total yards.
Alabama had 414 total yards, and A.J. McCarron was 16 of 23 for 208 yards and two touchdowns. The Crimson Tide had 179 rushing yards, led by T.J. Yeldon’s 84 on 10 carries.
“We came into this game expecting to get a win,” MSU linebacker Cam Lawrence said. “Props to Alabama, they’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. I felt we played one of our worst games, and Alabama just executed.”
MSU’s best drive of the night came in the third quarter and featured some great throws by Russell, including a 28-yarder to Chris Smith, who had 73 yards on three catches. Starting at its own 2, the Bulldogs got all the way to Alabama’s 1, but Russell was intercepted by safety Robert Lester in the end zone on third down.
It was just Russell’s second interception of the season. The 16-play, 97-yard drive was MSU’s longest of the season.
MSU narrowly avoided its first shutout of the Mullen era when Dak Prescott hit Robert Johnson for a 2-yard touchdown pass at the 4:39 mark of the fourth quarter.
Alabama has won five in a row in this series, with an average margin of victory of 24.2 points. This was MSU’s worst loss to the Tide since a 38-0 setback in 2003, Jackie Sherrill’s last season as head coach.
“I haven’t played a team like this since I’ve been in college,” said cornerback Johnthan Banks.
Both offenses clicked on their opening drives after good kickoff returns. Alabama got the ball first and covered 59 yards in nine plays, with Yeldon’s 11-yard TD run making it 7-0.
Then MSU, paced by Russell’s passing, including a 31-yard strike to Smith, reached the Alabama 14. But the drive stalled, and then Devon Bell’s 31-yard field goal was blocked by Dee Milliner.
“They came out and started fast, and we did not. The things that we’ve done in the past that we needed to respond, we responded to a point and then didn’t finish it off tonight,” Mullen said.
The Crimson Tide struck quickly again, as McCarron found Kenny Bell for a 57-yard touchdown pass. Bell got behind the All-American Banks on the play to cap a six-play, 80-yard drive.
“A.J. McCarron, I’ve got so much respect for the kid,” Banks said. “He gets that team going, he manages the offense, he makes no mistakes. He makes great decisions. He’s an NFL quarterback, I think.”
Alabama’s next drive was aided by two penalties before it even started. After MSU was penalized for interfering with the punt returner, Mullen was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after berating officials.
So instead of starting at the 12-yard line, Alabama’s drive began at the 42. That led to another score on McCarron’s 9-yard pass to tight end Michael Williams early in the second quarter.
“You are preparing yourself to fight a 15-round fight, knowing that you are going to have to take the fight to them in the early rounds,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “You can’t necessarily win the fight in the first round, but you can certainly lose it.
“I think we had the right mental energy and the right physical energy to play in the game.”
Alabama passed it on 11 of 23 plays on those first three TD drives.
“That’s something that they might’ve kind of caught us off guard,” Lawrence said. “Their offense coming into the game was 69 percent run, and them coming out throwing the ball, it was a little adjustment for us.”