By LEE ADAMS
Mistakes seemed to be the theme for Saturday night's Southeastern Conference Western Division game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide.
It was No. 3 Alabama made the best of Mississippi State's mistakes to pick up the 24-7 win.
"If you are going to beat one of the top teams in the country, you have to make all the plays and not make mistakes," said MSU head coach Dan Mullen. "That's what we preached all week to our guys, but if you make critical errors, you're not going to win."
It was defensive battle right from the word go, so both teams were just waiting for the other to make a mistake so they could capitalize on it.
"We didn't play a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination," said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. "We made probably too many mistakes, but we played extremely well defensively and made enough plays on offense. We should have finished a few more drives and scored some points earlier in the game."
The Crimson Tide (9-1, 5-1) seemed to make the first mistakes by missing two field goals, but MSU (5-5, 1-5) wasn't able to take advantage of them by finding the end zone or having much offensive production at all. The Bulldogs also missed two field goals in the first half to even out that mistake, but two big penalties by State gave Alabama the chance they were looking for.
On an MSU punt, State's Marvin Bure was called for a personal foul due to a late hit, giving the Tide good field position. Later in that drive, Johnthan Banks was called for pass interference in the end zone on third down, and Alabama scored two plays later on a run by Eddie Lacy from 2 yards out.
Many believed the Crimson Tide's backfield would be dominate, but MSU seemed to have Trent Richardson's number early. With Richardson being stopped for the most part, Lacy showed out and rushed for two touchdowns in the game.
Richardson did get his numbers by the end of the game, finishing with 127 yards and one touchdown. Both teams came out trying to establish the run game, but the Bulldogs were not ever able to find one and they rushed for only 12 yards. The Tide finished the night with 223 yards, but Saban feels those yards were not easily earned.
"We had a lot of respect for this team and we knew their front was going to be difficult for us to block and we struggled to run the ball at times," said Saban. "We made some explosive plays in the passing game to change field position, but we need to be a little more consistent in what we're doing offensively."
With the run not working, MSU resorted to its passing game and they continued to mix and match their quarterbacks. senior Chris Relf got the start but Tyler Russell and Dylan Favre both got playing time as well. In fact, Russell played more than Relf and Favre, but Relf did leave the game with what Mullen said was reported as a "mild concussion." However, the mixing of the quarterbacks gave Alabama some headaches, even though they were able to get some big stops.
"We knew when (Tyler Russell) was in the game, we had all of the respect in the world for him as a passer and when (Chris Relf) was in there, we were going to have to defend the run," said Saban. "They did run some option that hurt us at times with (Russell) at quarterback. That's a difficult offense to defend, but our players did a good job with all of the adjustments that you have to make."
Mullen had some tricks up his sleeve when he put Favre in the game as the Bulldogs ran an unorthodox swinging gate variation offensive formation.
With all of the offensive line other than the center lined up to the extreme left, Favre had some success completing two passes and picking up a first down.
The formation is something the Bulldogs have been planning and practicing for a few weeks, but they unveiled it tonight to surprise and maybe keep the Tide off balance.
"They're one of the top defenses in the country and we thought it would keep them off balance," said Mullen. "We tried to keep them on their toes by trying some different formations to get them a little unsettled and at times it was pretty good."
The tricky and unorthodox formation caught Saban and the Tide defense by surprise.
"I saw some stuff out there today, I've been coaching for 40 years, that I've never seen before," said Saban. "It's a learning experience, and I guess we'll figure it out next time."
In and out of the tricky formation, the Bulldogs had several opportunities find the end zone or keep drives alive that just came up short. One instance was on a fourth down play where Favre throws an almost perfect pass to Marcus Green, but Green wasn't able to hang on, turning the ball over on downs.
Alabama was able to capitalize on the ensuing drive by scoring a touchdown to extend its lead to 17-0.
After the touchdown,. the Bulldogs finally capitalized on good field position that was set up by a 68-yard kickoff return by LaDarius Perkins. MSU found the end zone after a couple of plays when Russell connected with Chris Smith from 12 yards out to pull within 10 points.
The offense seems to still be struggling to make the big plays, but the Bulldogs defense gave them plenty of chances to make those plays. Cameron Lawrence intercepted a pass and almost returned it for a touchdown. The offense wasn't able to get in the end zone or make the field goal, which killed the momentum built by the interception.
For most of the game, the MSU defense was able to shut down the Crimson Tide, and even though they were not able to do enough to get the win, their effort was noticed by defensive coordinator Chris Wilson.
"I'm very excited about how we competed and the physical toughness we played with," said WIlson. "Obviously, we wish we could eliminate some of those poor decisions at critical situations because right now that is the difference between us winning these games and not winning them."
The loss puts the Bulldogs back at .500 with a 5-5 overall record, but Saban feels they are a better team than that.
"Mississippi State has a good team," said Saban. "Everybody that they've played, they haven't lost by more than 13 points or something and all of the teams they've lost to are ranked teams."
State was definitely the underdog, but had numerous opportunities to get the upset, but they came up several plays short.
"I've got to give them credit, they're obviously one of the top two teams in the country," said Mullen. "I love the way our kids played. They played hard and physical, but in this conference we're playing the best teams week in and week out, and we have to execute at the highest of levels."
The schedule doesn't get any easier next week as the Bulldogs travel to Little Rock to face the Arkansas Razorbacks.