The Crimson Tide did just enough to escape the madhouse that is Starkville with a 31-24 win. Here is the Tide report card:
Rushing Offense: C+
This was a game where it didn’t feel like the rushing attack was doing much of anything, then you look down at the stats sheet and see that the Crimson Tide carried the ball for 202 yards and three touchdowns. This certainly wasn’t the force of nature rushing attack that we had seen through the first half of SEC play, but the ability of Alabama to run the football and keep their attack balanced was hugely important in the din that was produced in Starkville.
It took until the second half for Damien Harris to break free, but the biggest strike weapon for Alabama not playing at the quarterback spot had a couple of big plays late on. Harris first ripped off a 48-yard burst, before finishing with a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The big disappointment is that Bo Scarbrough was again a non-factor, rushing just five times for 33 yards.
Passing Offense: B
The passing offense gets this mark for the remarkable play of Hurts and his connection with wide receiver Calvin Ridley. The Alabama offense has swung in philosophy over the last couple of weeks with Hurts being told to look downfield more and keep his eyes trained that way instead of hitting underneath routes. The quarterback and receivers have stepped up to this challenge, but the offensive line (which allowed five sacks) is still keep this passing game from reaching its full potential.
On Saturday Hurts had to play an almost perfect game. The sophomore was 10-of-19 for 242 yards and a touchdown, but he did this knowing that he could not make a critical mistake as Alabama was being starved of possession because of defensive issues. Hurts hit Ridley five times for 171 yards, including on a 63 yard bomb where Ridley got behind the defense as Hurts threw under pressure. If the line play improves quickly then this offense will be a treat.
Rushing Defense: D
This is the first time all year that the Alabama rushing defense has been a problem. Perhaps it was the atmosphere inside Davis Wade Stadium, perhaps it is the result of all the injuries and knocks catching up with the defense, but a unit that had allowed an average of just 76 yards per game so far this season was blown apart for 172 yards and three touchdowns by the Bulldogs.
It was not just the amount of yardage here that was the problem. Mississippi State put up 172 yards despite never having a carry go for more than 13 yards. It was a volume based attack, with Aeris Williams (97 yards, two touchdowns) and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (66 yards, one touchdown) combining to carry the ball 43 times between them. In total MSU carries the ball 49 times, making too many first downs and tipping time of possession massively in their favor over the first 45 minutes of the game.
Passing Defense: C+
Nick Saban will have been happy that the Bulldogs offense was unable to hit on any big plays. He will, however, be a little concerned that some of those big players were only avoided by drops from the Mississippi State receivers. Fitzgerald was good without being spectacular as he passed for 158 yards on 13-of-24 passing with no touchdowns or picks. He didn’t have a single receiver with more than two catches, as plenty of players had receptions of 15 yards or more, but none had any longer than a 25 yarder to Deddrick Thomas.
Special Teams: C
A missed field goal and a Mississippi State punt downed inside the ‘Bama five yard line mark this grade down. The 41-yard field goal miss should be inside the range of Andy Pappanastos and it came with just over two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, at a time where a make would have put the game to bed. Instead the Crimson Tide defense had to have its best series of the game to force a late Mississippi State punt.
The punt being downed inside the five was unfortunate – the ball took one of the craziest hops you will ever see – but the returner should have just fair caught the ball in the first place.
This was far from Nick Saban’s best coaching job, but he did give his team enough belief and confidence to win a game that it never really looked like the Crimson Tide was going to be able to take. There were too many blocking mistakes on offense, while Saban’s defense just could not get off of the field for large chunks of the game. Alabama though has built this culture where the team just doesn’t accept losing and that is down to the personality and will of its head coach.