November 17, 2013 1:33:31 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State's marketing department made sure to get fans excited this week for a matchup against No. 1 Alabama.
None of that pomp and circumstance helped MSU make the fundamental plays it needed Saturday night to pull off a monumental upset.
On an evening in which the top-ranked Crimson Tide committed four turnovers and had their lowest scoring game of the season, T.J. Yeldon rushed for a season-high 160 yards and A.J. McCarron threw two touchdowns to help Alabama beat MSU 20-7 before an announced crowd of 57,211 at Davis Wade Stadium.
"We expected to win this game," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "Let me make that very clear from the start. There isn't a person around me that thought differently. Maybe there's not a person sitting here (in the media room) or people in the stands that thought otherwise, but we expected to stop them and to score."
MSU has lost six straight in the series and 11 of the last 13 games to the Crimson Tide. It must beat Arkansas and Ole Miss in its final two regular-season games to become eligible to play in its fourth-straight bowl games under Mullen.
"It's not very difficult because we expect to win every game we play, so why would that be any different?" Mullen said. "We've played the hardest schedule in the United States and we still expect to win every game we play."
Alabama (10-0, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) took the opening possession 14 plays and scored on a 33-yard field goal by Cade Foster. It took MSU nearly a quarter and a half to run 14 plays.
MSU (4-6, 1-5) couldn't convert on two plays from the Alabama 2-yard-line and came away empty when Evan Sobiesk missed a 23-yard field goal.
At the end of the half, the Bulldogs Achilles' heel hurt them again when the Crimson Tide scored on an 18-yard touchdown strike with 20 seconds remaining before halftime. The pitch and catch from Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron to Brian Vogler marked the sixth time this season MSU has allowed points with 2 minutes, 16 seconds or less left in the first half. Counting Auburn's last-minute drive that helped lift it to victory, MSU has allowed an opponent to score seven times this at the end of a half.
"If I knew what the problem was we'd already have it fixed, but if you look at the tape it's been something different in every game," Mullen said. "There's a big difference from being tied 3-3 to being down 10-0."
In a first half filled with big plays by the MSU defense, Alabama was 2 of 8 on third downs and had coach Nick Saban ranting at halftime about what he thought was his team's worst 30 minutes of the season.
"We didn't play very well in that half, really on either side of the ball," Saban said. "We got lucky on one drive on defense where they missed the field goal. We're not running it effectively, controlling the line of scrimmage or have any timing in the passing game."
MSU's opportunistic defense set up the team's first score. MSU redshirt freshman linebacker Beniquez Brown recovered a rare fumble by Yeldon that they used to go 46 yards and score the strangest touchdown of the season. After pushing several Alabama linemen on a designed quarterback draw, Tyler Russell fumbled near the goal line. After an officials' review, MSU right tackle Charles Siddoway was ruled to have recovered the fumble. The touchdown was only the fifth allowed by Alabama in the past eight games. In the previous seven games, the Crimson Tide allowed 6.1 points per game and just 4.32 yards per play.
Alabama limited MSU to just 53 yards on 29 carries, including only 25 yards by senior running back LaDarius Perkins.
The fumble didn't completely wipe away another solid effort by Yeldon. The sophomore eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the fifth time and averaged 6.7 yards per touch.
"He's just so tough to bring down, and it's a combination of size, strength and best vision you'll see," MSU freshman defensive lineman Chris Jones said.
After the Bulldogs' first touchdown drive of the game, McCarron, who threw for 187 yards, delivered a perfectly thrown fade route to Kevin Norwood for an 11-yard score that made it 17-7 in the third quarter.
"If you're going to go beat that team ever, you have to make all the plays," Mullen said. "I think we have kids in the future that is going to start making more of those plays."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.