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Initial Impressions from the Mississippi State Game

Alabama showed some improvement, and opportunities to improve, in a road thumping of Mississippi State.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama went on the road to Starkville and, after some early shenanigans, managed to walk out with a 40-17 victory. There was plenty to like about the performance, and plenty still to improve upon, but you can’t argue with the end result.

Why anyone would want to willingly sit in that pasture and listen to cowbells for three solid hours is beyond me. When my son played high school ball, a particular woman brought one to every game and by the end of the first half I was ready to fire both her and that cowbell straight into the sun. These people sign up to listen to thousands of them in unison, which is something I simply will never understand.

Early on, it did seem to affect Alabama a bit. Or something did, anyway. There was certainly some trouble communicating. Seth McLaughlin snapped the football once when Jalen Milroe wasn’t even looking for it. Thankfully Alabama was able to recover it, but the offense did exactly nothing on its first two possessions.

Fortunately, the defense was dominant early in the game and on the third possession, Jalen Milroe took over with his legs. After a 14 yard scamper, he ripped off a 53-yard touchdown run that was encouraging for the decisiveness he showed pulling the ball down and taking off. There are very few linebackers who can run with him in the open field, and that combined with his ability to hit the deep ball creates a nightmare scenario for defenses. Mississippi State chose to keep safeties back last night and Alabama wasn’t able to get over the top, but that also created plenty of room to run.

And run, Alabama did. Milroe was the star of the show in that regard, but Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams combined for a healthy 107 yards on 25 carries. Justice Haynes made a cameo late and managed an explosive run. Hopefully we will get to see some more of him in the near future, but Jase and Roydell continue to rack up the tough yards inside.

Milroe led the nation this week in total QBR, with his 198 passer rating and 69 yards on 11 carries. He still needs to throw the ball away occasionally, and based on Saban’s postgame comments there was more available in the passing game than what we got. But he didn’t turn the ball over and the offense operated pretty efficiently, scoring on seven of eight possessions between the two opening clunkers and the final one to run out the clock. Protecting the football, limiting the number of possessions and scoring efficiently on those few possessions is going to be the strategy going forward.

It was interesting to watch the barnburner yesterday between Ole Miss and LSU, after Ole Miss had just engaged in a low scoring affair with Alabama the week before. That game highlighted just how well Alabama dictated the action in that game, and that will be the key going forward. If Milroe continues to grow as a passer, perhaps we could compete in a shootout by the time that LSU rolls into town in November, but for now ball control is the ticket.

Defensively, poor Will Rogers was harassed for the fourth time by Alabama. This year he was sacked four times and threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for six. He did get his first career touchdown pass against Alabama on a short swing pass, but the pass defense was pretty devastating. State managed a whopping 107 passing yards on 27 attempts, which represents the worst YPA of Rogers’ four tries against Saban.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows on defense, as what has been a stout squad of run stuffers was routinely gashed. Most of the Bulldogs’ success running the ball came off-tackle, with split zone causing particular issues. Back Ja’Quavious Marks and Jeffery Pittman combined for 103 yards on only 16 totes, which is cause for concern. Saban said after the game that State crossed them up a bit, running on some downs when they expected a pass, but you can bet that future opponents will look to exploit that.

Special teams were a bit uneven. State had far too much success on kick returns and Kool Aid McKinstry muffed a punt early in the game, but Will Reichard and James Burnip continue to look like the best kicking duo in the nation.

Alabama generally controlled the lines of scrimmage in this one, which is always encouraging, and the secondary was phenomenal. Blowout wins on the road are never easy to come by in this league, but they managed to get one and emerged no worse for wear from a health standpoint. You have to believe that Alabama will at some point have to get more from its capable receiving corps, perhaps as early as next week against a stout front from Texas A&M. The snapping issues don’t seem to be getting any better, and that feels like the kind of thing that is going to bite us at the absolute worst time.

This game was a step in the right direction, though, and Milroe has another game of experience under his belt. Alabama still controls its own destiny for the SEC crown and College Football Playoff, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

Roll Tide.