November 12, 2010 7:46:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- How can a football team ranked in the top five of nearly every statistical category in its league have anything wrong with its offense?
When that team is the University of Alabama, any aspect of play below a championship level isn''t accepted.
Armed with Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and quarterback Greg McElroy''s steady play, the No. 11 Crimson Tide (7-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) are averaging 32.8 points per game entering their game against No. 17 Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2) at 6:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2).
Rushing numbers are down nearly 36 yards per game from last season''s national title run, but Alabama''s passing game has made up the difference with nearly 50 yards more per game.
The falloff has come in pass protection, as McElroy has been sacked 25 times, including 10 times in losses to South Carolina and LSU.
Alabama''s losses, which have all but ended the team''s national title hopes, have featured lackluster rushing performances resulting in 136 yards combined.
To boot, running back Trent Richardson is questionable for Saturday due to soreness in his knee.
"We have to re-focus on what it takes to mastering our position individually and collectively," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. "We made some mistakes up front on the offensive line that created pressure and an inability to run the ball as effectively as we could have had we executed properly."
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz hasn''t noticed a drop in Alabama''s rushing attack, aside from fewer game-breaking runs. He lauded the Crimson Tide''s rushing efficiency when asked about the performance of Alabama''s offense.
"You don''t see the hundred-yard days, but you still see both backs averaging over 6 yards a carry," Diaz said, "so you don''t know how shut down their run game has been. Both guys are still productive, so that''s still the best thing they do. They can ruin an overall good day by getting out of there and get loose on a big one."
Alabama''s bowl aspirations lie in a Bowl Championship Series berth, although its chances of making it to the SEC championship hinge on a win Saturday and a win against Auburn in two weeks.
Center Mark Vlachos said repairing the offensive issues isn''t simple.
"Is it the line''s fault? Is it the play-calling? Is it Mark (Ingram''s) knee? There''s probably something everyone wants to put their finger on to address that, but it''s a lot of things," Vlachos said. "It''s a ton of things that unless you know a ton of things about football, you probably wouldn''t really understand. It''s just about everybody doing their job."
MSU enters the game with the SEC''s third-best scoring defense, built by being extra stingy against the run. Opponents average 3.4 yards per carry and have found the end zone just six times.
The clash has all the makings of being a heads-up, physical ballgame.
"That''s something me and the linebackers like a whole lot," MSU linebacker Chris White said. "We don''t like a lot of spread offense, guys trying to trick us. We like guys lining up, going power against power. Usually, you got teams like Alabama, Kentucky, and LSU, they''re the only teams that really do that."
Wideout Julio Jones has benefited greatly from Alabama''s improved passing game. He enters the game with 55 catches for 758 yards and four touchdowns. MSU hasn''t faced a receiver of Jones'' caliber this season. Arguably the premier receiver in the league, Jones is a matchup problem for any defense.
Diaz''s approach will reflect his across-the-board, multiple scheme.
"Like any great player, you can''t let him get the big one," Diaz said. "You have to make him earn everything he gets. You''re gonna have to change up the way you cover him, the people you have covering him, and try to give him a bunch of different looks. As long as he earns everything he gets and he doesn''t get free ones down the field, then you have a chance."
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