By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
TUSCALOOSA — If Dan Mullen were a teacher, he'd have no other choice but to give his Mississippi State squad a failing grade on its first real test of the season.
After cruising to a 7-0 record versus a bunch of nobodies, the No. 11 Bulldogs ran into the biggest somebody of them all Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, losing miserably to No. 1 Alabama.
The 38-7 final pushed the Tide's record to 8-0 (5-0), keeping their SEC West and national title hopes intact heading into next week's marquee matchup with LSU.
If Mullen's men were the dunces of Saturday's battle between unbeatens, then Bama coach Nick Saban's players were the cream of the crop.
No pupil shone brighter than quarterback AJ McCarron, who made all the right plays early to motor the Tide to a quick 21-0 lead. The silky-smooth signal-caller put the perfect touch on a 57-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell late in the first quarter and added a 9-yard score to a wide-open Michael Williams shortly thereafter.
McCarron opened the game with six straight completions before Amari Cooper failed to find the handle on a catchable screen pass. The quarterback finished 16 of 23 for 203 yards and the two touchdowns.
Phillip Ely made the most of his limited time behind center in a backup role, completing his one and only pass to Eddie Lacy, who rumbled 27 yards untouched for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Alabama capitalized on Cyrus Jones' 41-yard return on the opening kickoff to put its first points on the board.
After Eddie Lacy and McCarron combined to move the ball deep into Bulldog territory, T.J. Yeldon capped off the drive with a loud introduction. The true freshman pulled off a 10-yard run up the middle on his first carry and then scooted in from 11 yards out on the very next play.
Yeldon led the Tide's rushing corps with 84 yards, while Kenyan Drake piled on 47 and a touchdown with the game already out of hand. Lacy only had 28 rushing yards on 10 carries.
As has been the case for Bama throughout the past two years, its defense was the real story in the team's latest blowout. The unit nearly claimed its third shutout of the season and reduced quarterback Tyler Russell and running back LaDarius Perkins' contributions to a minimum.
Mississippi State only threatened to score twice but both efforts were ultimately thwarted by clutch plays from the Tide D.
The first instance came on the Bulldogs' opening drive. After moving the chains with ease, they had to settle for a 31-yard field goal attempt, which was blocked by Dee Milliner, who burst around the left edge and laid out to get a piece of the ball.
The defense's other game-changer came in the form of a goalline stand from well inside the 5-yard line during the third quarter. Robert Lester stonewalled Perkins at the 1 on a second-down run and then picked off a pressured Russell in the end zone on the following play.
Mississippi State avoided a big-fat zero on the scoreboard with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to Robert Johnson with 4:39 remaining in the contest.
From the punter to the kicker to the coverage men, Alabama's special teams were just as brilliant as its defense.
Cody Mandell pinned the Bulldogs inside their own 20 three times — two of those were inside the 5 — and Jeremy Shelley was successful on a 34-yard field goal.
Lester picked up a Bulldog punt that was inadvertently touched by a Mississippi State player in the fourth quarter, leading to Ely and Lacy's touchdown connection.
On the ensuing kickoff, Christion Jones forced a fumble that was recovered by Vinnie Sunseri. The Tide once again converted a turnover into six points when Drake scampered in from 3 yards out for the team's final score.
After seven weeks of rainbows and sunshine for Mississippi State (7-1, 3-1), Mullen didn't have too many reasons to smile on Saturday night.
Late in the first quarter, the coach was slapped with unsportsmanlike conduct for arguing after one of his players was penalized for interfering with Jones' ability to field a punt. The pair of penalties set up the Alabama offense at its own 41 instead of its 11.
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.