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October 28, 2012

Special teams turn Tide

TUSCALOOSA | Both offense and defense have served as a tone-setter of sorts over the course of the football season for the University of Alabama, but on Saturday night, it was special teams that made the early difference.

The Crimson Tide toppled Southeastern Conference West Division foe Mississippi State from the ranks of the nation's unbeaten, 38-7, and special teams played as much of a role in the Crimson Tide's success as in any game UA (8-0) has played this season.

The most impactful play, by far, was Dee Milliner's blocked field goal, a 31-yard attempt by MSU's Devon Bell, on the Bulldogs' opening possession.

"I think there were two really critical plays in the game. They drove the ball right down the field on us, and we get the blocked field goal early in the game, which was a big play," UA coach Nick Saban said. "And when they drove the ball 97 yards on us and we got an interception."

Milliner came unblocked around the right edge of the protection and got a hand on Bell's kick, drawing a raucous ovation from a UA crowd that was in store for far more excitement. Milliner's block quickly snuffed some early momentum the Bulldogs picked up in driving 41 yards on their opening possession.

"We have been working on that this week. They were kind of light at the wing position," Milliner said. "I got a good takeoff and fortunately got a block. We've been practicing it all week, and I've blocked a couple of them in practice. I was hoping I would get one in the game."

Meanwhile, one special teams area that has been a trouble spot for the Crimson Tide in recent weeks - kickoff coverage - had an up-and-down night.

MSU had kickoff returns of 39, 37 and 33 yards, but the coverage unit also forced two fumbles - both by Christion Jones - and twice stopped returns inside the MSU 20.

"It was a call on our side, middle right, I was hot coming down," Jones said. "Our kickoff team did a great job fitting the wedge. I saw the guy come, and made the tackle."

Freshman Reggie Ragland dropped LaDarius Perkins at the MSU 20 on one kickoff, and John Fulton stopped Perkins at the MSU 19 on another.

"We're getting better each week," Milliner said. "We had a couple (returns) that broke out, but, fortunately, we were able to get the ball out on a couple of them. That's something we can work on and get better at."

Alabama's kicking specialists enjoyed a strong night as well.

Punter Cody Mandell averaged 42.2 yards on five punts. He nearly pinned MSU at its 1-yard line on a first-half punt that barely found its way into the end zone. In the second half, Fulton downed a Mandell punt at the Bulldogs' 2-yard line by catching it on the fly. Mandell also launched a 61-yard punt that was downed at the MSU 5.

Kicker Jeremy Shelley extended Alabama's lead to 24-0 with a 34-yard field goal in the waning moments of the first half, Alabama's lone field goal try of the night.

UA safety Robert Lester contributed on special teams, recovering a loose ball on a punt in the second half. Freshman wide receiver Cyrus Jones did his share on special teams as well, breaking a 41-yard kickoff return from the Alabama end zone to open the game. The Crimson Tide offense capitalized on that return by driving 59 yards for a touchdown.

Reach Chase Goodbread at chase@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0196.

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