Situation goes wrong: Top-ranked Tide too much for Bulldogs

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) gets pressured by the Alabama defense.

Staff Writer

Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead perhaps said it best earlier last week. To beat top-ranked Alabama, MSU didn’t have to play a perfect game, but the Bulldogs needed to be close.

On Saturday in Tuscaloosa, too many things went wrong, nowhere near enough went right and No. 16 MSU was defeated 24-0 by the No. 1 Crimson Tide.

“You have to tip your hat to (Alabama head coach Nick Saban) and his team and his program,” Moorhead said. “That’s a heck of a ball club right there and from a program standpoint, that should motivate us every single day. You want to know what the best team in the SEC looks like and a team that can compete for a national championship? That’s it.”

A tough first quarter, an inconsistent offensive attack and at least a couple of questionable calls by the officials spelled doom for MSU (6-4, 2-4) against Alabama (10-0, 7-0).

The Crimson Tide came straight out of the gate and punched the Bulldogs right in the mouth to start. On its very first drive of the game, Alabama went right down the field for 73 yards in nine plays to quickly go up 7-0. It was a disappointing ending to the series for Mississippi State after it appeared MSU had forced a turnover earlier.

Before Alabama even crossed the 50-yard line in its opening drive, the Bulldogs appeared to have caused a fumble. MSU celebrated wildly after recovering the loose ball, however officials declared Alabama running back Damien Harris was down and the play was never reviewed despite replays showing the ball appeared to be out before Harris’ knee touched the turf. Moorhead could have challenged the critical play, but didn’t.

“I considered challenging it, but the information I got from my guys up in the booth who saw it and got a great view of it said (Harris) was down,” Moorhead said. “They said it wasn’t going to be overturned.”

Alabama took full advantage of the turn of events. After the Tide got in the end zone, Alabama’s defense forced MSU’s offense to go three-and-out, then Alabama marched right back down the field and scored again for a 14-0 lead – this time on a 13-play, 83-yard drive.

By the end of the first quarter, Alabama was out-gaining Mississippi State 150 yards to 13 and had 10 first downs to none for MSU. The Crimson Tide looked to be on the way to a blowout win.

To Mississippi State’s credit, the Bulldogs settled in and started to put up a fight. By and large, the second quarter belonged to MSU. State’s defense got back to the stingy form it has shown all season and gave the Bulldogs a chance to get back in the game.

“Defensively, we continue to play well and continue to fight our tails off,” Moorhead said.

Two critical plays hampered that effort.

Late in the second quarter, Mississippi State’s defense held Alabama to get the Bulldog offense the ball back. The Crimson Tide punted, but MSU’s Deddrick Thomas muffed the punt and Alabama recovered on the State 27-yard line. Three plays later, Alabama was back in the end zone and MSU was down 21-0.

Still, MSU showed signs of life before hitting another major snag, this one again courtesy of the officials. The Bulldogs started the ensuing drive on their own 25 and after a pair of big runs by Kylin Hill and a long pass from Nick Fitzgerald to Aeris Williams, MSU was in the red zone at the Alabama 12.

Two plays later, Fitzgerald again completed a pass, this one to Hill that got State down to the 1-yard line. On the brink of crossing the goal line though, the referees flagged Thomas for a controversial block in the back. That pushed State back behind the 10-yard line.

“I’m going to have to look at that on film, but I’m not going to talk about that (block in the back call),” Moorhead said postgame. “There was an explanation, but I’m not going to delve deeper into that.”

Following the call, Fitzgerald was later sacked on third down, Jace Christmann then came on to attempt a 41-yard field goal. He missed it as time expired in the first half and the Bulldogs came away empty.

“It’s a tough situation, but good teams have to bounce back from it,” Fitzgerald said of the end-of-the-half sequence. “I think we’re a good team. We just didn’t bounce back.”

It was a frustrating ending to the half on an overall frustrating day for MSU.

On one hand, there was yet another outstanding overall defensive effort for the Bulldogs as they limited the mighty Crimson Tide offense to a season-low 305 total yards including only 155 after the first quarter. However the Mississippi State offense simply couldn’t sustain much of anything against the powerful Alabama defense. MSU totaled only 169 yards of offense – the worst output of the season for the Bulldogs, who were shut out for the first time since November of 2008 at Ole Miss. That, combined with being on the bad end of a pair of crucial officials’ calls, was simply way too much for MSU to overcome.

To beat Alabama, pretty much any team needs quite a bit to go its way. On Saturday, nowhere near enough did for Mississippi State.

“They’re No. 1 for a reason,” Moorhead said of Alabama. “It’s not just the offense. It’s not just the defense. It’s not just the special teams. It’s the whole picture and how they put it together.”