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Alabama vs. Mississippi State: Containing Dak Prescott

Rankings are rankings. Saturday’s matchup against Mississippi State is the lone thing Alabama can control. A victory over Mississippi State puts the Crimson Tide in a playoff spot. It’s faced many obstacles this season, yet the Bulldogs will present Alabama with another road block, junior quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott has Mississippi State on cloud nine. The Bulldogs are 9-0, and Prescott is a frontrunner in the Heisman conversation. Alabama’s defense will look to contain Prescott, but first it must recognize his tendencies.

The Nature of Prescott

Mississippi State used Dak Prescott as its short yardage quarterback in 2012. He registered eight total touchdowns (4 passing, 4 rushing) and threw for 194 yards. Prescott started seven games last season and was a pleasant surprise for Bulldogs fans. He recorded 23 total touchdowns (10 passing, 13 rushing) and 2,769 yards (1,940 passing, 829 rushing).

He’s become an improved passer, but Prescott’s known for his mobility. He is a north and south runner that embraces contact. Prescott found his style at Haughton High School (Haughton, La.). He collected 951 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. Prescott led the Buccaneers to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the 4A state quarterfinals.

2014 has shown no signs of Prescott slowing down. He’s rushed for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns. His legs are lethal, but his arm has caught up. Prescott has completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,231 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His release is quicker, and he’s locating receivers in stride.

Alabama’s defense: Limiting Prescott

Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban is one of the best defensive minds in college football. It’s better to be safe than sorry with him. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart would rather over prepare and be right, than relax and be embarrassed.

Alabama’s defense plays to a certain standard, a standard to which Saban created in 2007. Saban’s process is simple, yet time consuming. Defensively, he wants pressure. Saban wants to confuse and disrupt opposing teams. He generates complex schemes and looks for his players to execute properly. His slogan “Make His Ass Quit” is more than a statement, it’s a lifestyle.

Dual threat quarterbacks have been a thorn in Alabama’s side, despite intense preparations. Cameron Newton (Auburn—2010) and Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M—2012) both defeated the Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium. He didn’t pass the ball much, but Auburn’s quarterback Nick Marshall did enough to beat Alabama in the 2013 Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide defeated Tennessee 34-20, but sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs moved the ball well against Alabama’s defense.

The Crimson Tide succeeded against Jeff Driskel and Kenny Hill, but Prescott poses as a different challenge. Alabama can’t afford to play combo coverages against Mississippi State. Saban dialed some up against LSU, yet it almost gave the Crimson Tide its second loss. LSU’s quarterback Anthony Jennings converted some third downs with his legs because Alabama didn’t have a linebacker in the middle of the field.

Combo coverages (man, press) negate a linebacker’s chance to spy on mobile quarterbacks. When a team plays combo coverage, linebackers have to read receivers, running backs and tight ends. It forces them to make quick decisions. The weak side (Will) linebacker takes the flat, covering running backs and slot receivers. The strong side (Sam) linebacker focuses on tight ends and plays in zone coverage. It’s the middle (Mike) linebacker’s job to read opposing quarterbacks and get a defense in order.

Alabama’s defensive line has been disruptive. It’s totaled 24 sacks this season, after registering 22 in 2013. Xzavier Dickson, Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson all have played well. Dickson leads Alabama with seven sacks. Allen (3.5 sacks) and Anderson (3.0 sacks) have combined for 6.5 sacks. True freshman Da’Shawn Hand is fourth on the team with two sacks.

Sacks are great, but forcing early throws is just as good. The Crimson Tide has to affect Prescott in the pocket and limit his ability to run. Batting balls down will be important. Defensive lineman Jarran Reed has five pass breakups. Alabama has to knock Prescott down a few times. He can’t have a clean pocket and a clean jersey.

Reggie Ragland is an impact player. Trey DePriest is a senior leader, but this could be a matchup where sophomore linebacker Reuben Foster can shine. Foster is an animal on special teams. Fans and opposing coaches saw him against Florida, Texas A&M and LSU. He hits hard and accelerates well.

“Reuben was lost when he first got here,” Alabama’s defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said on Alabama’s Fan Day. “He always played fast and with a lot of energy, but he didn’t know what he was doing most of the time. Foster has made huge strides and we want to continue seeing him improve.”

It’s been three months since Smart made that statement. Foster has improved and is becoming a fan favorite in Tuscaloosa. He has 18 tackles and a sack this season. Foster’s discipline on gap assignments is a working progress, but having him spy on Prescott benefits Alabama. DePriest could play zone and Ragland would be on the weak side. Foster’s speed and physicality would cause Prescott to hesitate before deciding to run.

Blueprint from Kentucky and Arkansas

Kentucky and Arkansas both lost to Mississippi State, but defensively both programs frustrated Prescott in the second half. Kentucky sacked Prescott three times and forced an interception. Alvin “Bud” Dupree and Za’Darius Smith both constantly harassed Prescott.

Arkansas came close to pulling an upset. The Razorbacks held Prescott to 61 rushing yards and forced two interceptions. It didn’t register a sack, but Arkansas knocked Prescott down a lot. The Razorbacks hurried him four times. Prescott ended the game with a minor knee injury.

Dan Mullen: Dak Prescott or Tim Tebow?

Mississippi State’s head coach Dan Mullen has had the luxury of molding two good quarterbacks, Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott.

Mullen had Tebow at Florida. Hailing from the Philippines, Tebow guided the Gators to multiple Southeastern Conference Championships and national titles (2006, 2008). He ended his career with many awards, including a Heisman Trophy in 2007.

Mullen became Mississippi State’s head coach in 2009. It took five seasons, but he has found his quarterback in Prescott. The Bulldogs are chasing a national title for the first time under Mullen and Prescott is a primary reason. Fans love him, ESPN adores him and even Nick Saban respects him.

“Dak Prescott reminds you of Tebow in a lot of ways, but he is also a very good passer,” Saban said in an article to SB Nation.

Tebow completed 66.9 percent of his passes and totaled 4,181 yards (3,286 passing, 895 rushing) as a sophomore in 2007. He collected 55 total touchdowns (32 passing, 23 rushing) and six interceptions.

Prescott has three regular season games left, but he can overshadow Oregon’s quarterback Marcus Mariota in a Heisman conversation with a dominant performance against Alabama. Prescott has 30 total touchdowns (18 passing, 11 rushing, 1 receiving) this season. He’s registered 3,010 yards (2,231 passing, 779 rushing) and seven interceptions.

Final Verdict

Mississippi State has a great defense, but Dak Prescott must make plays in order for the Bulldogs to win. It’s faced adversity against Arkansas and Kentucky, but Bryant-Denny Stadium is an entirely different monster. Saban and company expects a packed house.

It will be tough, but Alabama’s defense has to set a tone early. Hits on special teams, early sacks and turnovers are a must for the Crimson Tide’s defense against Mississippi State. An SEC title game, a College Football Playoff spot and Heisman implications all rest on Saturday contest. Alabama has the No.1 team nationally in its backyard this weekend. It must handle business and it starts with containing Prescott.

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