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Bama vs state
Alabama must show it can protect Tua Tagovailoa better after struggles vs. Mississippi State
Published on Nov. 12, 2018
Alabama won its game against Mississippi State on Saturday, 24-0, but in that win, we saw the Bulldogs do something against the Tide that no other team had done to this point in the season.
Mississippi State — its defense, particularly — repeatedly punched the Tide in the mouth, and the Tide could do little about it.
“We didn’t have much rhythm today on offense,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game on the CBS telecast. “They got a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Tua (Tagovailoa) got beat up a little bit. We had some adversity, and it’s the first time we’ve had any adversity on offense all year long. You got to learn how to respond, and this will be a good … lesson for us.”
More than anything, it may have been a lesson for Alabama’s future opponents. You can bet Auburn, Georgia and potential College Football Playoff opponents such as Clemson, Notre Dame and Michigan will have this game tape playing on repeat in the coming weeks. It’s not every day, after all, that they see the Tide get manhandled up front, and each of those teams will analyze every frame of film from Saturday to see how they can exploit the Tide the way the Bulldogs did.
Alabama gave up a season-high four sacks against Mississippi State while finishing with season lows in points (24), total offense (305 yards) and passing offense (164 yards). Its 141 rushing yards were the second-lowest it had produced this year. Of the Tide’s 305 yards, 156 came during their first two drives of the day, both of which resulted in touchdowns.
How did Mississippi State force such a poor performance from Alabama?
The answer starts with the injury to left guard Deonte Brown, who went down after the Tide’s first two drives. While he was in, Alabama had scoring drives of 73 and 83 yards, respectively. Without him, Mississippi State — led by NFL first-round hopefuls Jeffrey Simmons and Montez Sweat — pinned its ears back and quickly became too much for the Tide to handle.
The Bulldogs utilized the rush to not only take away Alabama’s deep plays and make the Tide one-dimensional — they rushed for 2 yards or fewer to open six of their last 10 drives — but also to batter and bruise Tagovailoa like no other team has this season. That was a huge issue, considering how banged up he has been. The last straw was when MSU’s Cameron Dantzler got a shot on Tagovailoa’s right knee in the third quarter, causing Alabama to take him out as a precautionary measure (Saban later said Tagovailoa was dealing with a quad issue and that he could have returned).
Even if Tagovailoa had returned, it likely wouldn’t have made a difference. With no threat of downfield passes, State sold out to stop the run and also dared Alabama to keep it from sacking Tagovailoa. After he left, the Bulldogs continued to sell out to stop the run and quickly sniffed out whatever Mac Jones screen passes the Tide used to try to catch them off guard.
Had it not been for a terrific performance by Alabama’s defense — which was similarly dominant in forcing a second consecutive shutout and sacking quarterback Nick Fitzgerald five times — the game could have been a lot closer. Indeed, Alabama’s defense kept the game comfortably out of reach (a controversial reversal of a touchdown notwithstanding).
Simply put, this wasn’t Alabama’s night on offense, and things won’t get any easier for the Tide as they finish this season.
Consider this: Auburn, which Alabama plays to end the regular season, was tied for ninth nationally with 29 sacks entering Saturday. That’s two more than MSU’s total even after the Bulldogs’ four against Alabama. Michigan (29) and Clemson (32) also had more prior to Saturday.
Make no mistake, Alabama’s offense runs through Tagovailoa. As talented as the team’s receivers, offensive line and running backs are, it would be next to impossible for the Tide to replicate their offensive success without him. Jalen Hurts is a more than capable backup but is nowhere near 100 percent healthy after suffering an ankle injury vs. Tennessee in October. Teams won’t respect Jones’ ability to throw the ball.
Alabama needs to use next week’s game against The Citadel to not only get back into an offensive rhythm but also to get healthy for what will be a pivotal final stretch to the season. Whether that means Tagovailoa, Brown and other key offensive players don’t play against the Bulldogs remains to be seen.
If Alabama is to maintain that rhythm and keep its Playoff hopes alive, it will need to stay healthy and prove it can hold up against more frequent, varied blitz packages.
Otherwise, what’s to stop Auburn, Michigan, Clemson — anyone — from trying the exact same game plan as Mississippi State’s? More importantly, what’s to stop them from getting the same result?
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