Mississippi State football: Anemic offense negates terrific defensive performance
The Mississippi State Bulldogs fell to the reigning national champs in Tuscaloosa Saturday evening, losing to the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide 24-0. Truthfully, the game went exactly as you would’ve guessed, and it was the same story that it has been all year long – the Bulldogs offense was anemic, hindered by its one-dimensionality, and the defense was downright stifling, continuing to play championship-caliber ball.
On the bright side, the Bulldogs played Alabama as well as or better than anyone has all year long. On the negative, State is now 6-4 (1-3), which has to be considered a disappointment considering the talent level on this team.
Here are three things I liked in the Bulldogs’ loss and five things I didn’t like.
What I liked
3. Pass defense: Facing quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is never fun. He’s the hands-down Heisman favorite for a reason. After all, he’s a guy who was averaging 12.2 yards per attempt and completing 68 percent of his passes with a 27-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio heading into this game. With that said, he legitimately struggled for the first time this year against a ferocious Mississippi State defense, which held him to 164 yards through the air with 1 TD and 1 INT, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt. The secondary was tight in coverage and the defensive line was fantastic in applying pressure on Tagovailoa, making it a very uncomfortable night for the Heisman favorite.
2. Kudos, Bob Shoop: You have to give defensive coordinator Bob Shoop credit for his game plan, as he called a beautiful game. He was aggressive with his calls, using a plethora of stunts, blitzes and delayed blitzes, bringing pressure both inside and outside. He knew that if he just dropped everyone into coverage, Tagovailoa would sit back there and pick them apart, so he regularly brought the house in a variety of ways, showing a ton of faith in his defensive backs along the way. The game plan Shoop crafted will clearly be the blueprint that Auburn, Georgia and whomever Alabama plays in the Playoffs will use to try to bring down the Tide.
1. Defensive adjustments: Alabama had their way with State during their first two offensive drives, when the Tide ran 22 plays for 156 yards and 2 TDs. After that? 149 yards and 10 points through the rest of the game. Talk about settling down and making the right adjustments. Just a hell of a night for the Mississippi State defense. This is legitimately a national championship-caliber defense, and it’s a shame that it hasn’t gotten much help from the offense this year.
What I didn’t like
5. Failure to convert on third down: The Bulldogs struggled mightily to convert third and fourth downs and ended the night just 1-of-15. The Bulldogs just couldn’t sustain drives, putting even more pressure on their defense. This honestly makes the defensive performance even more impressive, because they were on the field so often.
4. Penalties, penalties, penalties: Mississippi State has, by and large, struggled with penalties all year, and that trend continued in Tuscaloosa as the Bulldogs committed 7 penalties. If you’re going to beat Alabama, you can’t beat yourself, and that’s what the Bulldogs did. To compound that, Alabama literally committed zero penalties.
3. Passing woes continue: As has been the case all year, the Bulldogs struggled to move the ball through the air, and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald wound up completing 11 of 20 passes for 125 yards, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt. Fitzgerald is what he is, and he’s not a guy who can beat you with his arm. His inability to complete passes downfield limits the offense tremendously and forces it to rely almost exclusively on its rushing attack. Against a team like Alabama, you can’t just overpower them with a one-dimensional rushing attack; you have to be able to keep them honest with a balanced attack, and State just couldn’t do that. Toward the end of the game, you also had to be wondering – just how bad is Keytaon Thompson in practice if Joe Moorhead refuses to look to him when the offense stalls out completely?
2. Offensive line butchered: Not a good night for the Bulldogs’ offensive line, which struggled to both generate a push in the run game and adequately protect Fitzgerald in the passing game. For Fitzgerald to have any kind of accuracy, he needs a clean pocket, because when he’s pressured he makes mistakes and his mechanics fall off, leading to even worse precision. The Alabama front seven just tortured the Bulldogs’ offensive line, and the constant pressure was detrimental to Fitzgerald’s ball placement. The constant snap miscommunications were also a very poor look.
1. Minimal plays on offense: The offense didn’t help the defense one bit, failing to take advantage of an outstanding performance in limiting Alabama’s titanic offense. The Bulldogs’ first four drives went a combined 14 yards on 14 plays, which is staggeringly bad. On the fifth and final drive of the half, they finally had some luck moving the ball, going 51 yards on 9 plays. But then they failed to capitalize on the opportunity, having a TD called back and missing a field goal. The second half wasn’t much better, and they wound up running just 28 plays (for a total of 79 yards). Again, both the minimal number of plays the Bulldogs ran and their inability to convert on third downs only made the defensive performance even more impressive.