TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was Halloween inside Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night. Alabama’s defense came as its old self.
The No. 2 Crimson Tide recorded its first shutout since 2018, easing past Mississippi State 41-0.
Led by Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, the Bulldogs came into Tuscaloosa ranked No. 5 in the nation averaging 357.5 yards per game through the air. Alabama allowed less than half of that, holding Mississippi State to a season-low 163 passing yards while limiting the Bulldogs to just 3.2 yards per play.
That’s quite the change from when Alabama allowed 7.5 yards per play while giving up an embarrassing 647 yards in a 63-48 victory over Ole Miss earlier this month.
“I think that kind of made them mad,” Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith said of his defense. “Everybody outside was criticizing them. They kind of was feeding off of that. They was like ‘OK, if y’all are going to talk we’re going to show y’all.’ I feel like everybody talking down about them made them hungry… I knew that everybody saying the things they said would make them mad, just wake up the monster.”
Alabama’s defense set the tone early, forcing three-and-outs on each of Mississippi State’s first three possessions. The Bulldogs didn’t record a first down until 9:34 left in the second quarter and moved the chains just once in the first half, entering the break with just 38 yards of total offense. Mississippi State ended the night with 200 yards to its name, punting 10 times while going 2 of 15 on third down.
Since the second half of its 41-24 victory over Georgia, Alabama’s defense has allowed just 17 points over 10 quarters of play, a stark contrast to the average of 30.33 points allowed over its first three games. While defensive coordinator Pete Golding might not have completely earned back the trust of the Tide faithful just yet, his defense is finally performing to the level of a championship contender.
“This gives us a lot of a lot of confidence going into the weeks ahead,” cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. “We planned on doing what we needed to do to stop their Air Raid attack, and we went into the whole week knowing this is what we needed to do to control that. I feel like carrying this momentum into the weeks ahead will give us a slight advantage.”
Surtain recorded Alabama’ third non-offensive touchdown of the season when he returned an interception 25 yards for a score in the fourth quarter. The play marked Alabama’s second defensive touchdown in as many weeks as freshman Malachi Moore found the end zone on a 28-yard strip-and-score against Tennessee.
“I disguised because I knew they ran that concept before earlier in the game, so I recognized the play before it happened,” Surtain said of his interception return. “I jumped it and caught the ball. I knew it was a house call.”
Alabama came well-prepared to stop the Air Raid, focusing on getting to the ball and tackling in open space. Mississippi State ran the ball just 15 times for 37 yards, opting instead to spray out passes to its receivers. Following the game, Nick Saban said his team researched Leach’s offenses at Wahington State last year piecing together how to best defend the unique attack.
“I think it’s a positive sign that the players were able to do the things that were a little different and go out there and execute them well enough against a pretty prolific passing team,” Saban said. “I don’t think they expected us to play the way we played, so that probably was a positive for us. … But the way we played the game today is you’re begging them to run the ball, basically. I don’t think you can play that way against most teams, but I think the confidence that the players gained from going out there and getting the shutout in this day and age is a real positive thing for the defense.”
Alabama has an open date on its schedule next week before traveling to Baton Rouge, La., to take on defending national champions LSU on Nov. 14.
Despite Saturday’s success, the Tide still has some things to fix. Alabama committed 10 penalties for 71 yards and allowed the occasional big play against the Bulldogs, things that better opponents down the road might exploit more.
“I feel like we have a lot more work to do,” said linebacker Dylan Moses, who recorded an interception in the end zone to stop a score in the third quarter. “We’re taking the right steps in the right direction in getting to where we want to be. There’s always room for improvement, so it isn’t something we just want to be content with.”
Still, Alabama’s monsters were reawoken. That should send some Halloween chills up the spines of future SEC offenses.