STARKVILLE, Miss. — Measure the length of Marquis Johnson’s hand from base of the palm to fingertip and you’ll know just how close a college football game can be.
Johnson reached in and swatted away three passes in the end zone Saturday to push No. 3 Alabama to a 28-point win over Mississippi State and its second consecutive 10-win season.
“When you look at it, that was the difference in the game,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “When we were inches away from them, they still made the play. When they were inches away from us, they made the play.”
Much is made of the Alabama defensive front seven, but its secondary was the primary reason the Tide shut down Mississippi State.
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Strong safety Mark Barron picked off his Southeastern Conference-leading fifth and sixth interceptions, scooping up each just inches off the grass in Crimson Tide territory.
“He’s a ball-hawking guy that breaks on the ball,” coach Nick Saban said.
Barron said he simply did his job on the interceptions, reading the quarterbacks’ eyes. But his steady hand in pass coverage gives Alabama confidence as it loads the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
“It makes it easy for a corner when you’ve got a safety that aggressive,” corner back Gilbert Arenas said.
Johnson had an interception on top of those three swats — each featuring a great recovery followed by timely leaps — and the Tide held the Bulldogs to 99 yards passing.
“Good teams are always in the right place at the right time and they were there for those things,” Mullen said. “And you give them the credit. We had the opportunity to complete two long passes for touchdowns. If those are completed it’s a different ballgame. You know what? Their kids leapt up to make plays and prevent the long touchdown throws. That’s why they’re one of the top teams in the country.”
Alabama’s pass defense is 11th in the nation, giving up 166.5 yards per week, and second in pass efficiency defense. The Tide, ranked third overall in total defense, has picked off 15 passes this season while allowing six touchdown passes.
The secondary is aided by that stout front Mullen calls a seamless “wall,” of course. The Tide has 28 sacks this season that constant pressure up front makes things a little bit easier on the secondary.
The whole package adds up to a bedrock fact for Alabama.
“Our defense shows up every week,” wide receiver Marquis Maze said. “When we come in, we know they are always going to do what they have to do.”