Alabama football offense facing toughest challenge in Mississippi State pass defense

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

As Alabama’s offense has proliferated in its new pass-forward era, it has found a consistent foil.

Only 10 times in the last 33 games has UA passed for two or fewer touchdowns; Mississippi State is one of just two schools responsible for two of those outings, and one of the three teams to hold UA to one or fewer touchdown passes in those 33 games.

Saturday’s game between No. 2 Alabama (5-0) and Mississippi State (1-3) is another battle of a high-flying Crimson Tide passing attack and a Bulldog defense that’s stingy against the pass. UA enters the game second in the nation in yards per attempt (12.4), first in completion percentage (76.9) among teams that have played more than one game and tied for the national lead with four passes of 60 yards or more.

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Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are 16th nationally in yards per attempt allowed (6.5) among those with at least four games played and lead the SEC with just eight pass plays of 20 yards or more allowed.

“With Mississippi State, yeah obviously they run a little bit of a defensive structure,” quarterback Mac Jones said Monday. “They do defend the pass really well.”

The atypical system is devised by Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett, a career-long product of the Rocky Long tree, as this season is his first working for someone other than Long. Arnett started as a graduate assistant for Long at San Diego State (after playing for him at New Mexico), eventually elevating himself to linebackers coach and then defensive coordinator for his final two seasons.

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Mississippi State has benefitted from a disruptive pass rush more then disruptive defensive backs; the Bulldogs rank 13th in the SEC with 14 passes defensed, three interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

The Bulldogs have been strong on the defensive line, with Marquiss Spencer contributing 2 1/2 sacks and Nathan Pickering adding two, but linebackers have been agents of chaos in the pass rush. Aaron Brule and Erroll Thompson lead the team with three and two quarterback hurries, respectively, while Brule is adding two sacks.

Meanwhile, UA is through three straight games of throwing for exactly 417 yards; Mississippi State has allowed that total since 2016.

UA’s passing attack is losing the SEC’s previous leader in receiving yards, Jaylen Waddle, to his season-ending ankle injury, but replaced him capably with Slade Bolden, who caught six passes for 94 yards.

Jones enters the game as the national leader in yards per attempt and completion percentage among those with more than one game and one of just 13 quarterbacks with at least 12 touchdown passes this season. He is also looking into his toughest challenge to date.

“Mac’s shown a lot of maturity in the way that he’s played so far this year,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “I think the more experience he gets, the more confidence that he has. We left some plays on the field, I think, on third down in the game that we certainly need to improve on and work on because that’s been something that’s been a really positive thing for us. But Mac’s been able to stay steady. He stays in a good place, keeps his eyes in the right place, keeps making good choices and decisions. I think that’s when he’s most productive, and he’s done that on a very consistent basis all year long.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson