Arenas’ returns help out No. 1 Alabama

Published 10:33 pm Saturday, November 15, 2008

TUSCALOOSA – Javier Arenas squirted through a gaping hole toward the sideline and there was no catching him from there.

Or No. 1 Alabama, for that matter.

Arenas ran back a punt 80 yards for a touchdown and set up a score with another long return, helping the Crimson Tide roll to a 32-7 comeback win over Mississippi State on Saturday night.

The Tide (11-0, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) scored the game’s final 27 points to turn back a team that had given ‘Bama fits the past two years.

Kareem Jackson blocked a punt in the end zone for a safety and Leigh Tiffin kicked three field goals to help keep Alabama on track for a perfect regular season leading up to a showdown with No. 3 Florida in the SEC championship game.

Mississippi State (3-7, 1-5) had won the past two meetings with coach Sylvester Croom’s alma matter. The Bulldogs, who were knocked out of contention for a second straight bowl trip, had also been the team to end Alabama’s last regular-season reign over the rankings back in 1980 when Croom was a Tide assistant.

Arenas effectively wiped out any fears of a repeat 28 years later. He darted through a gaping hole and raced down the right sideline for his fifth career punt-return touchdown early in the second half to break David Palmer’s school mark.

“Javy’s second return probably changed the momentum of the game as much as anything,” Tide coach Nick Saban said, calling it a “picture-perfect return” by the whole unit.

“We pretty much controlled the game after that.”

Arenas gained a school-record 153 yards on six returns.

“My guys are out there blocking for me, just a huge wall there blocking for me,” he said. “All of the guys set up a wall. I didn’t make any moves.”

Alabama trailed 7-5 when he turned in his first big runback and was in command after his second. His 46-yarder to the Bulldogs’ 2-yard line set up John Parker Wilson’s 1-yard sneak. It was the Tide’s first offensive touchdown against Mississippi State since the fourth quarter of the 2004 game, a span of some 210 minutes of play.

Mark Ingram added another 1-yard score in the fourth quarter.

The Tide turned in a workmanlike performance following an emotional overtime win at LSU that clinched the SEC West title, but still outgained Mississippi State 364-167. Alabama had only 212 yards entering the fourth.

“The first half we didn’t play especially well,” Saban said. “We made some mental errors on defense that were very costly — not like us. I thought we had a lot of energy, a lot of intensity, but we didn’t play very smart.”

Wilson completed 10 of 17 passes for 148 yards and set up scores with long passes to Julio Jones and Brad Smelley. Ingram ran for 78 yards and Glen Coffee had 71 for the Tide.

Mississippi State took the lead on Jamayel Smith’s 31-yard pass from Tyson Lee five minutes into the second quarter. The Bulldogs couldn’t produce much else offensively.

Lee completed 11 of 28 passes for 132 yards while the league’s top run defense held Anthony Dixon to 26 yards on 11 carries. That didn’t leave much margin for error on special teams.

“We gave up 16 points in the kicking game, and that’s pretty much the ballgame,” Croom said. “We can’t give those guys points. You can’t give them anything.”

Croom said defensive tackle Jessie Bowman appears lost for the season with a torn quadriceps muscle. The loss ended Mississippi State’s postseason hopes. Linebacker Dominic Douglas figures there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“We couldn’t get anything started, passing or running, offense or defense,” linebacker Douglas said. “We tried our best to stop them, but they kept kicking field goals that added to the score. We have to play better than we have been playing, and that is the bottom line.”

Alabama’s lone remaining game before the Gators is against struggling Auburn in two weeks..