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November 14, 2009

Black dog

STARKVILLE, Miss. _ It was comparable to a suffocation, with the University of Alabama football team slowly squeezing the air out of host Mississippi State.

The life started to come out of the Bulldogs in the second quarter, when the Crimson Tide scored two touchdowns and MSU went three-and-out all three possessions.

The hope began to fade when the Mississippi State appeared to score on an 88-yard kick return early in the third quarter, only to have officials rule that Chad Bumphis stepped out of bounds at the 38, and the subsequent field-goal attempt missed wide left.

Even the cowbells were almost entirely silent in the fourth quarter when Alabama added two more touchdowns and the defense snared two of its three interceptions to close out the 31-3 victory at Davis Wade Stadium.

Yeah, it was a total team win, even though the Bulldogs were foaming at the mouth for the upset chance against No. 2 Alabama (10-0, 7-0 SEC), and tried to spark a little extra emotion by wearing black jerseys with maroon numbers.

"I could tell by the way their players were in pregame and coming out," said Coach Nick Saban, who secured back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in his career. "I told our players 'It's going to be a street fight out there and you're going to have to go toe-to-toe for a while. We're going to have to change the way they think in terms of the way we play and the way we execute. Do you have enough honor in yourself to be responsible for what you're supposed to do and do the best you can? Do you have enough courage to do it any circumstance, and the perseverance to do it all the time?'"

It took a little while, but Alabama did, with Mississippi State unable to convert a third down during the first half, when it completed just four passes (three of which were to senior running back Anthony Dixon) and had 83 total yards of offense.

The key early statistic, though, may have been rushing yards, with Alabama holding a 120-39 lead. Whereas the Bulldogs' only effective weapon, Dixon, was averaging 2.8 yards per carry, sophomore Mark Ingram was winning their showdown with 59 rushing yards when on plunge into the end zone his helmet came off and he took a shot just inside the right temple.

"When I noticed it was a touchdown I was, 'Owe, my face hurt,'" said Ingram, who needed five stitches to close the cut.

"I feel like I just went 12 rounds."

Only Ingram returned and finished with 149 rushing yards on 19 carries for a 7.8 average, giving him 1,297 rushing yards to move into sixth place on the Alabama single-season rushing list (1,471, Bobby Humphrey, 1986).

"He's a beast," junior receiver Darius Hanks said. "Every game he runs through the tackles and just keeps going."

With true freshman Trent Richardson adding 47 yards on 11 carries, the Tide pounded out 252 rushing yards, more than twice what Mississippi State produced (114 on 37 carries, 3.1 average). It was also balanced out by the passing game, which tallied 192 yards and two touchdowns.

"All things considered, I thought we did a pretty good job on offense tonight," said junior quarterback Greg McElroy, who completed 13 of 18 attempts with no interceptions.

Both the ground and passing games were rewarded in the fourth quarter with long touchdowns on the first two snaps.

The first was the exact same play that Alabama opened the scoring on a 45-yard pass to Hanks early in the second quarter. This time it was sophomore Julio Jones, who gave a stellar example of "wide open" on his 48-yard touchdown.

"One of those moments you're 'Don't overthrow him, don't overthrow him," McElroy said. "It was an easy throw. He did a great job of getting open."

The other was a 70-yard run up the middle by Ingram, the longest of his career (previously it was the 54-yard carry against South Carolina), and gave Heisman Trophy voters a little more to think about.

"That's exactly how we wrote it up," Ingram said, later adding: "I think everyone thinks I'm just a power back, but I have speed too."

Meanwhile, MSU (4-6, 2-4) attacked senior Marquis Johnson with numerous deep passes, all incomplete, and sophomore Mark Barron nabbed two interceptions. While Dixon finished with 81 rushing yards on 22 carries and 59 receiving yards on six catches, everyone else on the Bulldogs accounted for just 73 yards of offense as Mississippi State failed to reach the end zone.

"This is definitely a do-or-die moment," said Dixon, as MSU must beat both Arkansas and Ole Miss to be bowl eligible.

That was fitting because similar to the last time an opponent tried to get an emotional lift by wearing black jerseys against the Tide (Georgia last year), it ended up with the same result: essentially attending its own funeral.

"It's like I told our team, I think our best football is still out there someplace," Saban said.


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