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STARKVILLE, Miss. – Mississippi State caught No. 1 Alabama in a forgiving mood. The Crimson Tide had four turnovers in their worst offensive performance all season.
But the Bulldogs couldn't take advantage.
Squandering opportunities throughout a frustrating game, Mississippi State fell to Alabama 20-7 on Saturday night at Davis Wade Stadium.
Mississippi State's defense forced Alabama into a sloppy performance, but the Bulldogs' offense managed just 197 total yards and couldn't convert the Tide's mistakes into points.
"We expected to stop them and we expected to score, but we didn't do that," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "We didn't stop them enough and we didn't score enough."
Alabama's T.J. Yeldon rushed for 160 yards and A.J. McCarron threw two touchdown passes.
"We typically struggle here and we did again tonight," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "But give Mississippi State credit, they had a good game plan. They played very physical and we couldn't control the line of scrimmage."
It was the lowest scoring game of the season for Alabama (10-0, 7-0 SEC), which led 10-7 midway through the third quarter before pulling away.
Alabama has seemed invincible over the past two months, winning seven straight games by at least three touchdowns. But that aura wasn't anywhere to be found at Davis Wade Stadium, with Saban's bunch looking curiously mortal after last week's emotional victory over LSU.
"We came out sluggish and we were sluggish to the end," Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood said.
Mississippi State (4-6, 1-5) kept the game far closer than most anticipated, but couldn't take advantage of Alabama's mistakes. Tyler Russell started for the injured Dak Prescott and completed 15 of 24 passes for 144 yards and an interception before leaving with a shoulder injury when the Bulldogs were trying to rally in the fourth quarter.
McCarron tossed two rare interceptions and Yeldon had a costly fumble that led to Mississippi State's only touchdown, but Alabama survived to set up a much-anticipated Iron Bowl with Auburn.
Mississippi State had two chances to get back into the game in the fourth quarter after McCarron's second interception and a fumble by Kenyan Drake gave the Bulldogs field position in Alabama territory.
But without Russell, Mississippi State's offense went nowhere. Freshman Damian Williams didn't connect on any of his five pass attempts — though two of them were good passes that were dropped.
"If you're going to beat that team, you've got to make plays," Mullen said.
Mullen said Russell felt his throwing shoulder "pop" after trying to make a tackle following his interception late in the third quarter. He played the next series, but struggled to throw and Mullen made the switch.
McCarron completed 18 of 32 passes. His interception in the second quarter was his first in 139 pass attempts. It was the third 100-plus streak without an interception during his career.
Alabama parlayed a methodical 14-play, 59-yard opening drive into Cade Foster's 33-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
But the next four drives were brutal for the Crimson Tide offense, which managed just two first downs during that span.
Mississippi State tried to take advantage with a long drive midway through the second quarter, but it bogged down on the 7 and Evan Sobiesk missed a 24-yard field goal that could have tied the game.
A few minutes later, the Tide finally broke through with Yeldon's 50-yard run down the sideline to Mississippi State's 28. McCarron hit Brian Vogler five plays later for an 18-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter to give Alabama a 10-0 halftime lead.
The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Vogler made a nifty move at the goal line, catching the pass and sidestepping a Mississippi State defender before diving into the end zone. It was his first career touchdown.
It looked like that would be all the breathing room Alabama needed, but the mistakes continued in the second half. Yeldon fumbled after a 10-yard run and Mississippi State's Beniquez Brown recovered at Alabama's 48.
The Bulldogs then drove downfield and scored thanks to Russell's timely passes and a stroke of luck. Russell fumbled just short of a touchdown, but right tackle Charles Siddoway fell on the ball in the end zone to pull Mississippi State within 10-7.
McCarron's 11-yard pass to Norwood pushed the Tide ahead 17-7 with 5:46 left in the third quarter.
Alabama's defense held an opponent to seven points or less for the sixth time this season. Tide punter Cody Mandell might have been the team MVP, averaging 55 yards on four punts to constantly put Mississippi State in bad field position.
"He did a fantastic job," Saban said. "He had a fabulous night on a windy night. One of those big kicks was into the wind."
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP