Bulldogs take stock after loss to Alabama

Published 8:00 am Monday, November 13, 2017

When the latest Associated Press poll was released Sunday, Mississippi State actually improved its standing. It was little comfort. Not when a chance to earn a place in school lore was so tantalizingly close the night before.

On a day filled with upsets in college football, the Bulldogs had a shot to pull off the biggest one of all. They had No. 1 Alabama on the ropes all night and led in the fourth quarter.

The Crimson Tide spoiled that dream, however, by rallying to score two touchdowns in the last 10 minutes to fend off the Bulldogs 31-24.

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After coming so close and giving their best effort against Alabama (10-0, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) in a decade, the Bulldogs didn’t seem in the mood to be happy with moral victories.

“We lost. That’s the reality of it. It doesn’t matter who you lost to, it doesn’t matter how much you lose by or anything like that, you lost a football game we feel like we should have won,” Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said. “I feel like we could have won, so I’m disappointed, sad, but can’t lean on it too much, keep moving forward.”

Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3) moved up one spot, to No. 17, in the latest AP poll. It’s the third straight week that MSU is in the Top 20 of the rankings, its longest streak since 2014.

MSU finishes the season with a road game this week at Arkansas (4-6, 1-5) and then the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night against Ole Miss (5-5, 2-4). With both of those opponents struggling, the potential certainly exists for Mississippi State to finish with nine wins and a strong bowl bid.

Looking ahead, and not at what might have been, is crucial to finishing out the way they want, Fitzgerald said.

“Wake up tomorrow and then move on. We have two more games left in the regular season, must wins, and we have a bowl game so we have to keep moving forward. We can’t lean on this one,” he said.

If there’s one thing the Bulldogs might want to take away, it is playing on an even — or even superior footing — to the reigning beast of the SEC.

Mississippi State was outgained 444 yards to 330, but part of that was by design. It held the ball for 38 minutes and 56 seconds and rushed 49 times for 172 yards as the game plan was to keep Alabama’s offense off the field.

Aeris Williams ran 22 times for 97 yards and two touchdowns, while Fitzgerald had 21 carries for 66 yards and a score.

“We wanted to control the tempo of the game. I thought we were able to do that most of the night. We gave up too many explosive plays on the defensive side of the ball,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “I thought we ran the ball OK most of the night offensively. We did control the tempo of the game. We just didn’t get enough points at the end of the game.”

Mississippi State had enough points through three quarters. It took a 24-17 lead on Jace Christmann’s 25-yard field goal with 14:13 left in the game.

That’s when Alabama, finally tested after winning all but one other game this season by 14 points or more, responded like the champion it has been time and again.

The Crimson Tide took the ensuing kickoff and drove 82 yards in 10 plays, capped by a 14-yard touchdown run by Damien Harris to tie the game.

The defense held Mississippi State to three-and-outs on its next two possessions, and the offense pounced both times.

Andy Pappanastos missed a 41-yard field goal that would have given the Tide the lead with 2:03 remaining, but they got the ball back a minute later. Quarterback Jalen Hurts completed a 31-yard pass to Calvin Ridley to the MSU 26, and on the next play found DeVonta Smith on a slant route. Smith split two defenders and got into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to go.

Hurts finished the game just 10-of-18 passing, but for 242 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions. He was sacked five times.

“(Hurts) definitely was very poised,” said Ridley, who caught five passes for 171 yards. “We’ve been in situations like this, like last year versus Clemson and other games. We practice against that type of stuff. We just made some great plays right then.”

Mississippi State got two chances at a hail mary in the final seconds, but both fell incomplete.

Afterward, Alabama breathed a sigh of relief — and also had a lot of praise for Mississippi State, to the point of sounding thankful for having to play a close game.

“(Coach Nick Saban) wants us to kill everybody, but unfortunately this is the SEC. Mississippi State is a good team,” Alabama defensive back Anthony Averett said. “It was hard. The atmosphere was crazy. The cowbells were loud. It was a good game.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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