STARKVILLE — With 14 minutes, 13 seconds to play on a cool, crisp Saturday night in Stark Vegas, Mississippi State took a 24-17 lead over Alabama. And we need some added perspective here, because that sentence doesn’t begin to tell how deep a hole Bama appeared to be in.
State had dominated for much of the previous three quarters. The game did not seem nearly so close. State was winning the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was making play after play, both with his right arm and with his legs. Aeris Williams was running through the Tide defense, which was missing four linebackers with injuries. That’s right: four.
Furthermore, Scott Field had become a virtual noise factory, louder than ever and that is really loud. You could not hear the guy next to you even when he was yelling. As they had in a 37-7 victory over LSU back in September, the Bulldogs seemed as if they were riding the crest of sound waves.
And that’s when your faithful correspondent issued a twitter message that included this phrase: “Alabama will need all its greatness to escape this.”
You know the rest of the story. From somewhere deep within those white uniforms with crimson lettering, Alabama summoned all its considerable greatness to come from behind for a 31-24 victory in one of the most compelling, well-played college football games you could ever hope to see.
Mississippi State played magnificently.
Alabama was better.
Fitzgerald played valiantly with heart and muscle. He finished several runs by pushing stout Crimson Tide defenders backwards.
But, in the end, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts made one more play. Too, he had Calvin Ridley, the best player on the field, on his team.
On a day of so many stunning upsets in college football, Alabama rose to a special level in the fourth quarter and escaped upset. State entered the fourth quarter with a 296-252 advantage in total yardage. In the fourth quarter, Alabama gained a whopping 192 yards total offense. State had but 34.
The game, played so hard and so well by both squads, gave us everything except a turnover. And, considering how hard the hitting was on both sides, that might be the most amazing statistic of all.
Todd Grantham’s State defense harassed Hurts all night, coming at him from all directions with multiple blitzes, including some from deep in the secondary. The Bulldogs sacked Hurts five times. In the end, the Bulldogs blitzed Hurts a couple times too many. When you bring linebackers and defensive backs on the blitz, you better get to the quarterback – or else. Hurts burned them.
On Bama’s game-winning, 68-yard drive, which began with one minute, nine seconds left to play, State blitzed on virtually every play. The Bulldogs sacked Hurts once and hurried him two other times, but he hit Ridley over the middle for a 31-yard gain, and then, on the next play, he hit DeVonta Smith with a 26-yard touchdown strike. Both plays came on all-out blitzes.
“We are an aggressive defense,” Dan Mullen said. “We came after them. That’s our style… That’s what we are, that’s who we are.”
Said Ridley, who caught five balls for 171 yards, “We just made some great plays right then. That team (State) played their butt off tonight. They gave it all they had.”
The touchdown gave Bama a 31-24 lead with 25 seconds left. To their everlasting credit, the Bulldogs did not gently go down to defeat. No, when the game ended, State had moved into Alabama territory and Fitzgerald was throwing into the end zone on the last two plays.
No matter who won, that’s the way this classic game had to end.
State became the first team to rush for three touchdowns against a Nick Saban Alabama team. State’s 172 yards rushing were the most by an Alabama opponent this season. The 24 points were the most scored against Alabama this season and the most State has scored against the Tide in 11 years.
But Alabama, as Alabama does, found a way to win its 22nd straight SEC regular season game. Let that sink in – 22 straight in a division where the Tide plays LSU, Auburn, Texas A & M, Ole Miss, Arkansas and State every season. This was Saban’s 60th game coaching Alabama as a No. 1 team. The Tide now has won a remarkable 54 of those. That’s greatness.
“Our guys played their tails off,” Mullen said. “They played hard for 60 minutes against the No. 1 team in the country and they are No. 1 for a reason.”