Snapping out of a late-season slumber, Alabama found just enough offense to escape Starkville with slim title hopes intact.
A 24-7 win over Mississippi State was hardly a masterpiece, but one wasn’t necessary with the Crimson Tide defense on the field.
The Bulldogs mustered just 131 yards — 12 on the ground thanks to five sacks — as the guests responded swiftly to the 9-6 overtime loss to LSU a week earlier. It was still a bit of an adventure for the No. 4 team in the nation.
Tide kickers missed their first two field goal attempts after a stagnant start for the offense that lacked rhythm in the first half. There was an interception, long kickoff return, but Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy helped break out of the funk to some degree after halftime.
“We didn’t play a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination,” coach Nick Saban said. “We had too many mistakes. We played extremely well defensively and made enough plays on offense, but we should have finished a few more drives and scored some more points early in the game.”
Richardson ran for 127 rushing yards on 32 attempts, breaking triple figures for the first time in three games after recording six straight.
Lacy’s 96 yards on 11 tries were the most he’s run for since Week 4 against Arkansas when he was slowed by a toe injury.
Both running backs contributed short touchdown runs before Lacy’s 32-yarder closed the scoring in the final few minutes.
The defense did the rest for Alabama (9-1, 6-1 SEC).
Mississippi State, which lost to a ranked team for the fifth time this season, managed just a single first down until late in the first half. Yet its only sustained drive ended without points when the 62-yard march ended in the missed 41-yard field goal.
Bulldog coach Dan Mullen broke out a few unconventional formations to loosen up the Tide defense. He also used pocket passer Tyler Russell in several running situations, though his season-high 10 running attempts netted a 3-yard loss.
“I saw some stuff out there today — I’ve been coaching 40 years — that I’ve never seen before,” Saban said.
The Bulldogs (5-5, 1-5 SEC) needed an Alabama mistake to key its only points. LaDarius Perkins returned a fourth-quarter kickoff to the Tide 22 creating the short field. Quarterback Tyler Russell then found Chris Smith for a 12-yard touchdown pass that cut the advantage back to 17-7 early in the fourth quarter.
Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower made life miserable on the edges and up the middle for the Bulldogs. The hosts had just four rushing yards through three quarters as both linebackers added sacks to the equation.
Hightower’s 11 tackles tied a season high for Alabama defenders. There were 1.5 sacks included in the number with C.J. Mosley, DeQuan Menzie, Upshaw, Nick Gentry and Josh Chapman also owning at least a piece of a sack.
That stats aren’t everything, Hightower said.
“Well, that’s just us. It’s not even the culture,” he said. “They maybe had only 12 rushing yards, but that’s besides the fact. When you’re looking at the stats, it might look good, but when you’re on the field, they came out and showed us some stuff we never thought we’d see.”
The Tide offense didn’t create any separation until the second quarter.
After missing two field goals in the first half, the Tide found the end zone for the first time in November when Lacy dove in from two yards out. The 51-yard drive included a 21-yard catch from Kevin Norwood who led the Tide with 60 receiving yards.
Things picked up after halftime.
Richardson ran for 88 of his 127 in the final 30 minutes when all but four of Lacy’s yards piled up.
“Well, we changed formations a little bit,” Saban said. “They really loaded the box quite a bit. Most of the good plays we made on passing plays came on first down and I think when a team plays you that way, you have to try to make those plays.”
Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, who threw an interception in his third straight game, completed 14 of 24 passes for 163 yards. Marquis Maze’s four catches went for 22 yards while Norwood’s two catches netted 60 yards.
Richardson added a 2-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter before Lacy’s 32-yard run with 1:18 left on the clock.
A visit from FCS member Georgia Southern is set for 1 p.m., Saturday before the Tide closes the regular season at Auburn on Nov. 26.