By Michael Casagrande
STARKVILLE, Miss. — Cowbells silenced and letdown avoided, Alabama enjoyed a little piece and quiet late Saturday night.
The maroon portion of the record-setting crowd of 58,103 in Davis Wade Stadium was already stuck in traffic by the time Alabama salted away its 31-3 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night in a game that featured little intrigue for a change.
A businesslike Crimson Tide avoided any thought of a letdown a week after salting away the SEC West title by controlling the action from the second quarter on as Alabama turned a dangerous environment for the highly ranked into a relatively docile setting.
Before the game, however, Saban could tell the environment would be hostile.
“I told our players, it’s going to be a street fight out there,” Saban said. We’re going to have to go toe-to-toe with them for a while. We’re going to have to change the way we think at times and the way we play and the way we execute.”
Just like in last week’s win over LSU, Alabama (10-0, 7-0 SEC) balanced out its offense while riding its intimidating defense that intercepted three Bulldog passes. The 252 Alabama rushing yards were countered by 192 passing yards from Greg McElroy who completed 14 of 19 attempts and threw two touchdown passes.
But most eyes were locked on the running backs.
Entering the game, most of the hype surrounded the matchup of the top two bruising backs in Alabama’s Mark Ingram and Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon. After a fast start by the big Bulldog, Ingram flexed some muscle and flashed his speed by running for 149 yards to Dixon’s 81.
Mississippi State (4-6, 2-4 SEC) leaned on its star as Dixon also contributed six catches for 59 yards and played a few snaps at Wildcat quarterback. In all, Dixon accounted for 140 of the Bulldogs’ 213 yards.
“Defensively, we had a lot of respect for their ability to run the ball,” Saban said. “A couple of runs got out Anthony Dixon is a really good running back. Rolando McClain did a great job.”
The other major difference besides McClain’s 10 tackles: Dixon has no Trent Richardson behind him. The Tide freshman came off the bench to run for 34 first-half yards including 27 on the Tide’s second scoring drive. He finished with 50 yards on 11 carries.
It was Richardson’s one-yard stretch on a third-down play that set up the Tide’s first touchdown. After appearing to be stopped short of the sticks on third-and-1, Richardson stretched the tip of the ball past the marker for a crucial first down.
One play later, McElroy found Darius Hanks wide open in the secondary for a 45-yard touchdown pass.
Following the second of three Bulldog second-quarter drives that ended after three plays and a punt, Alabama marched right back down the field. An 11-play drive was capped by the first of two Ingram touchdown runs and put the Tide firmly in control.
Meanwhile, the Alabama defense that allowed the Bulldogs to find early footing with 70 total yards clamped down by the second period. MSU gained just 13 yards in the second 15 minutes and failed to pickup a single first down.
Still, Mississippi State had a few opportunities to claw back into the game after halftime. Kickoff returner Chad Bumphus appeared to have a quick answer to a Leigh Tiffin field goal that put the visitors ahead 17-0 early in the third quarter. The Bulldog appeared to run the following kickoff back for a touchdown, but an official ruled he stepped out of bounds at the Alabama 38-yard line. A missed field goal on the ensuing drive kept the shutout in tact.
A few deep passes into the end zone later in the game were perfectly played by Alabama defensive back Marquis Johnson who intercepted a pass on the Bulldogs final possession.
The combination of Julio Jones and Ingram broke any spirit left in the Bulldog faithful in the fourth quarter.
One play after Mississippi State ended the shutout with a 34-yard field goal, a perfectly timed play-action fake salted away the win. With all 11 Bulldog defenders expecting an Ingram run, McElroy used his Heisman Trophy candidate running back as a decoy, pulling the ball back and hitting a wide-open Jones in stride for a 48-yard touchdown pass that put Alabama up 24-3 with 10:18 to play.