November 17, 2013 1:32:08 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State's defense figured out early and often Saturday night it belonged on the same field with the two-time defending national champions.
Thanks to defensive coordinator Geoff Collins' aggressive, mayhem-style attack, the Crimson Tide faced their most challenging test since a win at Texas A&M in early September.
"Alabama is the team that set the bar in this league and in the country, and that's the bar we'll continue to try and go after starting tomorrow," MSU coach Dan Mullen said.
As per team policy, MSU didn't make staff coordinators available after the game.
While the defense limited Alabama to its lowest scoring output of the season, MSU's offense gained just 197 yards in a 20-7 loss at Davis Wade Stadium.
"Our defense was huge in making big plays to keep us in the game," Mullen said. "I would've liked to have seen more pressure on the passer, but overall it was a pretty good effort."
In a game with too many similarities to the season-opening loss to Oklahoma State in Houston, MSU (4-6, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) showed more development in growth.
"I believe we have a great, young defense and we'll continue to improve as we get more experienced on that side of the ball," MSU freshman defensive lineman Chris Jones said. "I can say this, it's a dreadful mood in that locker room because we're so close as a team."
The Bulldogs forced the Crimson Tide (10-0, 7-0) into four turnovers. A fumble by tailback T.J. Yeldon early in the third quarter resulted in MSU's only touchdown.
In its past 77 games, the Crimson Tide has turned the ball over only 79 times (46 fumbles, 33 interceptions) for 1.03 turnovers per game, better than Ohio State's second-best 1.21 (88 turnovers, 73 games). Alabama is now 16-5 when losing the turnover battle since 2008.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron hadn't thrown a interception in his last 139 passes, but the senior also hadn't played against a defense that featured Taveze Calhoun. The sophomore cornerback picked off McCarron twice for his first career interceptions and, as tradition, handed the ball to Collins each time.
"It was big tonight for my confidence to get two picks, but I'd trade those right now for a win," Calhoun said. "I hate to lose, and the feeling of my two picks doesn't wipe away the loss."
Calhoun has made it a habit of having big plays when MSU's defense is in a critical spot. He scooped up Nickoe Whitley's blocked field goal and returned it 68 yards to the Oklahoma State 10-yard line to end the first half of the 2013 season opener. The season-opening loss was his first career start, but the 6-foot-1 product from Morton has earned that spot in each of the last four games.
"We had a lot of disguises to our game plan this week and they all seemed to work," Calhoun said. "We had a motto of playing to our standard tonight, and that standard is a lot higher than anybody outside the locker room thinks."
Calhoun, who was seen by many evaluators as a throw-in signee to try and lure high school teammate Quay Evans to Starkville, also had a season second-best five tackles against LSU on Oct. 5, including four solo hits.
In his first game against one of the two schools that tried to get him to flip his verbal commitment last winter, Jones showed flashes of dominating the Alabama offensive line Saturday. The five-star prospect out of Houston was active all night with two tackles for loss, a sack, a pass breakup, and a quarterback hurry.
"I knew the double-team was coming on the sack, and the minute I saw AJ McCarron, I wasn't able to let that opportunity slide to bring him down," Jones said.
Jones said earlier in the week that the Alabama coaching staff was just as aggressive as the coaches at Ole Miss in trying to get him to switch his MSU commitment on National Signing Day to the Crimson Tide, but months later he was leading the pregame routine for the other veterans.
"I always have confidence and energy, but against the number one team in the country is a opportunity I was not going to pass up bringing my type of personality to," Jones said.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.