Saturday night’s game against Mississippi State wasn’t a typical performance for Alabama.
At one point, the Bulldogs were simply bringing more physicality than the Crimson Tide, and that led to Alabama getting into more of a reactive mindset compared to its typical proactive approach we normally see.
Granted, Alabama did counter every blow that Mississippi State delivered, but it wasn’t the brand of football that Alabama is known for — physically dominating opponents.
This point was especially true for the run defense, which allowed three rushing touchdowns for the first time under Nick Saban. In addition, the front seven was also a key reason why the Bulldogs were able to control the clock (38:56 to 21:04) for a huge portion of the game.
In back-to-back weeks, Alabama has allowed a season-high rushing yards. First, LSU ran for 151 yards. Then Mississippi State went for 172. The Tide have allowed six rushing touchdowns this season — and four have come in those past two games.
It’s obvious that a continuously growing list of injuries is starting to wear on how productive the unit — as a whole — can be. With Auburn looming, that’s a potentially scary thought.
First it was the outside linebackers. Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis were highly regarded 4-star prospects coming out of high school. With the departures of Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, Miller and Lewis were ready to show what they were capable of.
At 6-5, 254 pounds, Lewis is that type of freak athlete who can become a star — even among a group of elite talents like Alabama’s defense includes.
Losing those two — along with fellow edge rushers Anfernee Jennings and Rashaan Evans temporarily — was tough, but Alabama had time to adjust with weaker non-conference opponents such as Fresno State and Colorado State up next on the schedule.
The second wave included major hits at inside linebacker.
Senior Shaun Dion Hamilton — who has probably been the most underrated player on the defense for two consecutive seasons — suffered a broken patella against LSU.
That’s already bad enough, but the Tide also lost Hamilton’s backup when sophomore Mack Wilson broke a bone in his foot. In limited duty, Wilson had performed extremely well (21 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 3 interceptions, 3 QB hurries and a pass breakup).
When both players went down, there was concern, but no one really thought it would cripple the Tide’s ability to stop the run. If Saturday was any indication, that might not be the case.
Redshirt junior Keith Holcombe was next man up, but the Tuscaloosa native struggled in his first career start.
Here he is (No. 42) on all three on Mississippi State’s touchdown runs:
Keith Holcombe on all three of Miss State’s touchdowns.
He has to play better. pic.twitter.com/K03oqt27sf
— Clint Lamb (@ClintRLamb) November 13, 2017
It could be a lack of playing time, but Holcombe looked timid. His presence was a liability, as he missed multiple tackles — including the one below.
You can’t miss this tackle.
I️ know Holcombe is better than this. He’ll get it together. pic.twitter.com/1E9yFQjmA4
— Clint Lamb (@ClintRLamb) November 13, 2017
This is not acceptable play, but Holcombe knows that by now. It’s one game, so to completely write him off would be foolish. Hopefully his play improves as he gets more comfortable — it better if he wants to keep his starting job over guys like Dylan Moses or Ben Davis.
Holcombe wasn’t the only issue on defense, however.
Players such as Tony Brown and Hootie Jones weren’t playing with the same physical aggressiveness that we have grown accustomed to seeing, either. Nick Fitzgerald essentially won a one-on-one against Jones on his 2-yard touchdown run, lowering his shoulder and driving Jones into the end zone.
Starting nose tackle Da’Ron Payne — a 6-2, 308-pound unmovable object in the middle of Alabama’s defense — dominated State’s offensive line at times, but there were other times were he didn’t look like himself either.
Here he is getting carried for 4 yards after making contact with Bulldogs RB Aeris Williams:
That’s Aeris Williams dragging Da’Ron Payne (with help) for a few yards pic.twitter.com/MqxnXLmXXB
— Brett Hudson (@Brett_Hudson) November 12, 2017
Mississippi State’s success running the football — especially inside — was a collectively poor effort from a majority of Alabama’s front seven.
The hope is that this performance was an outlier.
If it isn’t, it could be a sign of things to come — most notably when the Tide rolls to Auburn to take on a Tigers rushing attack that just put up 237 yards on a Georgia defense that is only averaging giving up 103.8 per game.