Alabama did what it has always done in recent years against LSU on Saturday. The Tigers were fired up and the crowd was insane, yet ‘Bama still won by more than four touchdowns and kept LSU scoreless. Next up is a Mississippi State squad that has talent, but has been up and down in 2018.
By Steve Wright
Here are the three keys:
Win the battle in the trenches
This Alabama squad has seen praise heaped all over its various units this fall. While the skill position players and the defense have both been outstanding, it feels like not enough credit is being given to an offensive line that routinely allows Alabama to do anything it wants when the Crimson Tide has the football.
The line was especially dominant against LSU on Saturday. Tua Tagovailoa was sacked just once – and generally kept clean other than that – while the rushing game took over in a way we haven’t really seen in 2018. The Tide backs combined to rush for 281 yards (a season high) often breaking through the first wave of defenders without so much as a hand placed on a shoulder pad as the blocking was so good.
The Bulldogs have the most talented defensive line in the SEC. Junior tackle Jeffrey Simmons and senior end Montez Sweat will cause problems, meaning the ‘Bama offensive line will need to be focused and switched on for the whole 60 minutes.
Win defensively on third down
The Bulldogs third down performance will go a long way towards determining who wins this game.
When the Mississippi State offense is working properly they create manageable third downs by running the ball using either their talented (but underused) running backs or quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. In their six wins they have converted their third down chances at an almost 55 percent clip.
In their losses – and notably the losses against Florida and LSU – the Bulldogs were stunningly bad on third down. They converted thirds into firsts just 25.9 percent of the time, with the games against the Tigers and Gators resulting in Mississippi State going 4-of-26 on third down.
Given that Alabama gives first downs on just 30 percent of third down tries the Bulldogs will have to stay ahead of the chains if they want to give Nick Saban’s squad a challenge on Saturday.
Stop Nick Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald finally seems to be rounding into something like the form that many expected of him under the coaching skills of Joe Moorhead this season.
The Bulldogs think they have the defense to hang with Alabama so the play of Fitzgerald in leading his team is a massive key to the game. This is a squad that averaged 29 points and 418 yards per game, with Fitzgerald having thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions over his last two starts. He has also rushed for 839 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season.
Hitting passes consistently has been Fitzgerald’s issue in 2018 so expect to see Alabama taking to the quarterback run away and make Fitzgerald try to win with his arm. Keeping him in the pocket and away from any chance of broken play yardage will also be important for Alabama here.