The surprising Mississippi State Bulldogs believed they were good enough to upset No. 1 Alabama. They couldn't pull it off, though.
The 13th-ranked Bulldogs couldn't take advantage of hard-to-come-by scoring chances and allowed touchdowns on the Crimson Tide's first three drives in a 38-7 defeat Saturday night. It was a game they were hoping would show how far the program has come, but it demonstrated that Mississippi State hasn't arrived just yet.
Signs of "We believe" were posted around Starkville.
"I think our guys played hard all four quarters," coach Dan Mullen said. "We still have a lot of young guys that are still learning. I think our guys are disappointed. They came in and expected to win the game. And probably nobody else out there thought we would. And I love our fans and how they believed in us. We didn't just believe, I think our guys expected us to win. So I think they're very disappointed. They're going to have to see how they respond from this."
Off to only their second 7-0 start, the Bulldogs (7-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) came in averaging 36.7 points but didn't score until the final minutes. They had been leading the nation in turnover margin but lost two fumbles and an interception.
That blazing start indicated 'Bama wasn't looking ahead to No. 6 LSU in a national title game rematch next weekend.
"We felt like we had something to prove, because they felt like they could come in our house and beat us," Tide linebacker CJ Mosley said. "As a defense we did a great job of stopping the run and making them try to beat us with the pass."
Point made. The Tide built a 21-0 lead barely a minute into the second quarter.
"We certainly had a lot of respect for Mississippi State," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "You don't get to be 7-0 by accident. I think it was important for us to get off to a fast start in this game, preparing yourself to fight a 15-round fight, knowing that you're going to have to take the fight to them in the early rounds.
"You can't necessarily win the fight in the first round, but you can certainly lose it."
Alabama's AJ McCarron completed 16 of 23 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns before sitting out the fourth quarter. He headed to the locker room briefly early in the period with a bruised back but returned to the sideline. Saban said McCarron could have returned and will be fine for the LSU game.
The Tide has now won the past five meetings and this one turned into more of the same, despite considerably more hype.
"They're No. 1 for a reason — they don't make mistakes," Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks said. "I haven't played a team like that since I've been in college. I have great respect for AJ McCarron. He doesn't make mistakes."
McCarron hit Kenny Bell in stride for a 57-yard touchdown to cap a drive that started at the Alabama 4. The quarterback then found tight end Michael Williams for a 9-yard score early in the second quarter.
McCarron's 18 touchdown passes tie him with John Parker Wilson for second-most in school history, two behind Greg McElroy's single-season record.
T.J. Yeldon rushed for 84 yards on 10 carries, including an 11-yard touchdown. The subs tacked on two touchdowns after turnovers in the fourth quarter.
It wasn't the finish that mattered the most, but the start.
"This is a big game for us and we knew that they were going to come out really believing they could win the game," Tide center Barrett Jones said. "And that's when we knew we had to come out and play hard in the beginning. We really started fast. That's something we talked about all week."
Alabama held the SEC's leading rusher, LaDarius Perkins, to 38 yards on 15 carries after he came in with three straight 100-yard efforts. The Tide outgained Mississippi State 414-256.
Tyler Russell completed 15 of 30 passes for 169 yards but threw just his second interception of the season and took a number of hits from the nation's top defense.
Alabama's 24-0 halftime lead held until Mississippi State had a muffed punt and another fumble in the fourth. Then Alabama's backup quarterbacks came in to convert those mistakes into touchdowns.
Phillip Ely hit Eddie Lacy for a 27-yarder and then Blake Sims led another scoring drive capped with a 3-yard touchdown run by freshman Kenyan Drake.
The Bulldogs finally scored on backup quarterback Dak Prescott's 2-yard touchdown pass to Robert Johnson with 4:39 left in the game.
Mississippi State couldn't cash in on two other scoring chances before the game really got out of hand. First, Dee Milliner blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt on the opening drive.
Then, Russell drove the Bulldogs 97 yards from their own 2-yard line before Robert Lester picked off a pass in the end zone late in the third.
"Things we've done right all year long, we couldn't do that against the No. 1 team in the country," Mississippi State linebacker Cameron Lawrence said. "These boys are the real deal.
"I feel like we played our worst game and Alabama capitalized on our mistakes."
Mississippi State managed to slow down Alabama's offense for a stretch after getting bullied in the first 17 minutes but couldn't find many holes in the defense.
The Tide has two shutouts and has lost two more in the final minutes with the reserves on the field.