No. 1 Alabama Stays Unbeaten With 32-7 Win Over Mississippi State

ROLLTIDEDOTCOM Javier Arenas set the career record for punt returns for a touchdown.
ROLLTIDEDOTCOM
Javier Arenas set the career record for punt returns for a touchdown.
ROLLTIDEDOTCOM

Nov. 15, 2008

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No. 1 Alabama (11-0 overall, 7-0 in the Southeastern Conference) got 18 points off special teams and two rushing touchdowns to stay unbeaten on the season with a 32-7 win over Mississippi State (3-7 overall, 1-5 in the SEC) at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. Alabama's special teams performance included three field goals, a blocked punt for a safety and 153 yards in punt returns from Javier Arenas, including an 80-yard return for a touchdown.

"I'm really pleased and happy with the way our team came out and played in second half," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "I think special teams probably as much as any game this year had a tremendous impact on field position this game. Certainly Javier and his returning, but also a good job by our return teams, had a tremendous impact on the game."

When the Alabama offense found itself struggling at times against Mississippi State's second-ranked pass defense, the special teams provided a spark--twice in the first half senior Rashad Johnson downed an Alabama punt inside the Mississippi State 3-yard line. The first time, Johnson touched the ball down at the 1, leading to a blocked punt four plays later by Kareem Jackson, who smothered a Mississippi State punt for a safety to give Alabama a 2-0 lead.

Johnson's second downing of the ball, which he killed at the State 2-yard line, happened in the second quarter with Alabama trailing, 7-5. After the Bulldogs were unable to convert a first down, a short punt out of their own end zone allowed Arenas to return the ball 46 yards to the 2. Two plays later, quarterback John Parker Wilson snuck the ball over the goal line to put the Tide up 12-7, which would remain the score at the half.

"The first half we didn't play especially well," Saban said. "We made mental errors on defense that were very costly and led to their scoring drive, and that's not like us. We did a much better job in the second half and controlled the game." Alabama's offense found its groove in the second half, running for 141 yards and passing for 113 yards. The Tide extended its lead to 19-7 early in the third quarter when Arenas fielded a punt at his own 20-yard line and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown. The return was the fifth of Arenas' career, setting an Alabama record for career punt return touchdowns.

"We did a good job of attacking them up front and holding them up and getting a release to the wall of blockers, and the wall people did a good job of outflanking them and that was one of those picture-perfect returns you always look for," Saban said. "The side return on a wall return is one of the prettiest things in football, and that was a good one."

After Leigh Tiffin's second and third field goals of the night extended Alabama's lead to 25-7, the Tide got its final points of the game on a one-yard plunge from Mark Ingram that was set up by a pair of long passes from Wilson. On the first play of Alabama's drive, Wilson found Brad Smelley for 37 yards, and then found Julio Jones for 34 yards on the next play to get the ball to the 1.

Wilson finished the night 10-of-17 for 148 yards with a rushing touchdown. Greg McElroy finished the game for Alabama, going 2-of-2 for 18 yards. On the ground, the Tide ran for 198 yards, getting a 13-carry, 78-yard performance from Ingram. Ingram's fourth quarter touchdown was his ninth this season, an Alabama record for rushing touchdowns by a freshman. Alabama also got a 71-yard performance from Glen Coffee, and Jeramie Griffin added 27 yards on five carries.

Alabama's run defense stifled the Bulldogs, holding State to just 35 yards on 22 carries. Alabama allowed just 167 yards of total offense in the game, 129 less than Mississippi State had averaged prior to the game, and forced 10 punts. The Bulldogs did not cross the 50-yard line in the second half.

"From a running standpoint we did a pretty good job of stopping the run," Saban said. "On some of the plays they made it was disappointing because we made mental errors and that's the thing you want to eliminate so that when they beat you they beat you because you can't stop them."

Alabama is off next week before hosting Auburn (5-6, 2-5) in the Tide's regular season finale, November 29, at Bryant-Denny Stadium.