Alabama Shoots Down Air Raid in Win Over Mississippi State
Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense has delivered some direct hits and some misfires over the years, but the operation has never failed as entirely as it did on Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
This is Leach’s 19th year as a head coach in college football. His notoriously pass-heavy scheme had never been shut out before this season, but it has now done so twice in its last three games after the team scored only a safety against Kentucky three weeks ago.
A Leach-coached team had never been shut out before Saturday, and the Bulldogs' 200 total yards are tied for the fewest his offense has accumulated in his 234 games as a head coach.
“I was really concerned about this week. We had a lot of guys beat up; a lot of guys had to miss practice,” coach Nick Saban said. “They had to really choose energy over their feelings in this game, and I was really pleased with the way we came out and played, especially in the first half and especially on defense.”
After recurring, early-season struggles to bring down ball carriers in the open field, the Crimson Tide’s tackling was consistent and reliable against the Air Raid, which attempts to stretch the defense as wide as possible and force it to play in space.
"We just wanted to make sure that on every tackle, we burst to the ball and make sure that we take away from them gaining a lot of yards,” linebacker Dylan Moses said.
Alabama’s three true freshman starters all made several impact plays. Linebacker Will Anderson Jr. had two tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries, and defensive backs Malachi Moore and Brian Branch each had a tackle for loss and two pass breakups.
It was the first career start for Branch, who had only played 15 defensive snaps entering the game. Saban said during the week that Branch had earned the starting Money, or sixth defensive back, position due to his coverage skills.
"[Branch] played a big-time game,” cornerback Patrick Surtain II said. “He stepped into the secondary full of confidence, and we trusted him to be in the game. He prepared this week like he was ready to go in and make plays, so it showed out there on the field. He's still got room for improvement as always, but the future's bright for him."
The Bulldogs went three-and-out and gained just 21 yards on their first five drives. They didn’t convert a first down until the 9:34 mark of the second quarter.
After they scorched LSU in the season opener with 623 passing yards, their passing production has decreased in every game since — from 313 to 275 to 217 to Saturday’s 163.
Many of the Crimson Tide’s defensive issues in previous games had come on play-action fakes or other plays involving deception. Without much guesswork about whether to play the run or the pass, they were able to drop back into their zones, read the quarterback and quickly rally up for the tackle.
Saban said after the game that the coaching staff studied the Air Raid concepts in the offseason and practiced for it during fall camp. For much of the game, the defense rushed three defensive linemen and dropped its remaining eight players into zone coverage.
“We did a good job of implementing what was a pretty new scheme for us to play against this team and their offense,” Saban said. “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. I don’t think they expected us to play the way we played.”
The shutout was in jeopardy at a few points in the second half, but the defense forced three turnovers to preserve its first shutout since Nov. 10, 2018, also against Mississippi State.
With Alabama leading 27-0 in the third quarter, the Bulldogs had first-and-goal at the 9-yard line, but the receiver bobbled the pass and it was intercepted by Moses.
Early in the fourth quarter, Mississippi State was approaching midfield when, on the eighth play of the drive, freshman defensive tackle Tim Smith forced and recovered a fumble.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young lost a fumble on the ensuing drive, giving the visitors another chance to get on the board, but Surtain undercut a pass two plays later and returned it 25 yards for the Crimson Tide’s final touchdown.
For a defensive-minded coach like Saban, birthday gifts don’t get much better than snagging three turnovers, forcing the opposing offense to go 2 of 15 on third down, and pitching a shutout.
“It’s great to win on your birthday,” Saban said, “so I was really happy about that present.”