Mississippi State gambles and Alabama makes them pay over the top with DeVonta Smith

Doug Segrest
Special to the Advertiser

Good defenses don’t bend until they break. They come after you.

And that’s what Mississippi State wanted to do Saturday night.

The SEC’s top-rated defense came after Alabama with corner blitzes, trying to set a tone. Tone set, just not the way intended.

Three times on three straight first-half possessions, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones reacted to State’s gambit by going over the top, deep, to DeVonta Smith. Twice the two connected for touchdowns. On another, the gain was good enough to entice a Will Reichard field goal.

Alabama defeated its closet geographical rival 41-0 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The moon was full, the air was crisp, and the Crimson Tide offense rolled early again. To State’s credit, it slowed Alabama from backstretch speed to a comfortable gallop, and came within 132 seconds of ending the FBS record streak of 18 straight games of 35 points or more.

Oct 31, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA;  Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) bobbles a pass in the end zone with Mississippi State safety Collin Duncan (19) defending at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

It’s now 19, thanks to a late Pick Six.

Nearly two months ago, everyone wondered how an SEC defense could stop State’s Air Raid offense after Mike Leach arrived from the Pac-12 and put up record numbers in the LSU opener. Since then? No secrets.

State is an offense in disarray. Stanford quarterback transfer K.J. Costello has struggled, and freshman Will Rogers’ best days are ahead of him. Costello departed in the first half after sustaining an apparent, and scary, concussion. Rogers gamely soldiered on, but to little effect.

That doesn’t take anything away from what Alabama accomplished on defense. The Crimson Tide limited State to 38 total yards in the first half while Jones, Smith & Co. were going full throttle.

Oct 31, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA;  Alabama linebacker Alex Kaho (10) congratulates Alabama wide receiver Slade Bolden (18) after Bolden had a big punt return against Mississippi State at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

At that rate, State would need to play another eight games to match its 632-yard output against LSU.

And when Rogers finally had a chance to throw into the end zone, late in the third quarter, linebacker Dylan Moses stole the ball away for an interception.

Meanwhile, with injured receiver Jaylen Waddle watching from the sideline, Smith scored four times, tying Amari Cooper’s school record of 31 career touchdown receptions. Jones padded his Heisman Trophy candidacy with another big night.

Oct 31, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA;  Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) catches a touchdown pass with Mississippi State cornerback Emmanuel Forbes (13) defending at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

And running back Najee Harris cracked the 100-yard mark again, though his streak of 13 straight games with a touchdown came to an end.

The numbers are impressive, but not as much as Alabama’s consistency this season. While even Clemson struggled against Boston College — albeit without Covid-sidelined quarterback Trevor Lawrence — the Tide continues to play on a level unlike any other program.

With a week off, Alabama gets extra time to prep for LSU’s arrival Nov. 14. That game is scheduled for prime time, just after The Masters coverage ends. But after Auburn took LSU to the woodshed Saturday afternoon, the battle of SEC rivals has limited appeal.

No problem.

Alabama’s season doesn’t hinge on avenging the 2019 national champs. The goal is to reclaim the throne.

With the offense humming like a Ferrari even against the league’s best defenses and its own defense improving each week, Alabama’s biggest challenges await in the postseason.

Doug Segrest, a former SEC beat reporter, is a freelance columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser.