STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP)—For years Sylvester Croom was one of Alabama’s great successes. Now he is becoming the Crimson Tide’s nemesis.
The former Tide assistant coach and player led Mississippi State to its second straight win over No. 21 Alabama with a bruising 17-12 upset on Saturday.
“We’ve got bragging rights now,” said Croom, the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native said. “I don’t have to say anything, but if I want to I can.”
The Bulldogs (6-4, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) are bowl eligible for the first time since 2000 and they did it with defense and power running, just like Croom learned from Bear Bryant.
Anthony Johnson returned an interception a school-record 100 yards for a touchdown and Anthony Dixon helped Mississippi State seal the win with 84 tough yards rushing and a second-half score set up by another interception.
The resurgent Bulldogs, who were 9-25 in Croom’s first three seasons, have won six games for the first time since 2000. They’ve also won consecutive games against ranked opponents after being 1-16 against the Top 25 under Croom.
Mississippi State beat then-No. 14 Kentucky two weeks ago and the win over Alabama made the Bulldogs 2-2 during a streak of four straight games against ranked opponents.
The Crimson Tide (6-4, 4-3) and first-year coach Nick Saban have lost two straight. The Bulldogs limited Alabama to four Leigh Tiffin field goals and extended their streak of holding the Tide offense out of the end zone to 12 quarters.
Croom, who played (1972-74) and coached (1976-86) at Alabama during its glory years before moving on to the NFL, is one of 26 former Tide players to become a head coach and is now 2-2 against his old team.
He was passed over by Alabama when Shula was given the job five years ago and Mississippi State hired him the following year, making him the first black head coach in SEC history. But he inherited a team that had been run into the ground and was on NCAA probation.
In Croom’s fourth year the team could be headed to a bowl, though another win against either Arkansas and Mississippi would help the Bulldogs’ cause.
“For some of these guys, they did not have to come here but they did because they wanted to build a championship program for this state,” Croom said. “In three hours, we changed the way people look at this program across the nation.”
Titus Brown, like Croom a Tuscaloosa native, ended the game with a sack as Alabama edged into Mississippi State territory in the final seconds.
“It means a lot and it really says a lot about this program,” Brown said. “We can compete with anyone in the conference and these guys come out to work every day. I’m glad to see the hard work finally paid off.”
John Parker Wilson threw for a season-low 121 yards and two interceptions. Wilson rarely found receivers open and often had to throw the ball away under pressure in the second half, completing 16 of 34 passes.
Alabama ran for 153 yards with top tailback Terry Grant getting 75.
The victory looked awfully similar to a 24-16 upset of the Tide in Tuscaloosa last year. In a game considered the beginning of the end of Mike Shula’s coaching career at Alabama, Mississippi State used defense to take an early lead, then wore the Tide down with Dixon’s power running.
The games also featured goal-line stands by Mississippi State at the end of the first half that wrested momentum from Alabama.
With first-and-goal from the 3 and 34 seconds left on Saturday, it appeared the Alabama offense would finally score a touchdown against Mississippi State. But the Bulldogs swarmed Grant twice and on third down Wilson was hit by Brown as he threw.
Johnson intercepted the pass and raced down the left sideline with just an offensive lineman to beat as a school-record crowd of 56,188 howled in delight. The return broke Jack Nix’s 70-year-old mark of 97 yards and gave the Bulldogs a 10-9 halftime lead. The Bulldogs are tied with Hawaii and Wake Forest for the most interceptions returned for a score this season with five.
“We messed the game up at the very end of the first half,” Saban said. “That was a critical turnover right there before the half and cost us probably a 10- or 14-point swing.”
Wilson’s view of Johnson was likely blocked as Brown bore down on him.
“They got a rush on me and I tried to get rid of it, but I just didn’t get enough on it,” he said.
Mississippi State struck again on the first drive of the second half. Wilson threw deep into double coverage on third-and-8 and Derek Pegues intercepted the pass and returned it 40 yards to the Alabama 25. Dixon scored from 3 yards out five plays later to make it 17-9.
It was the seventh game of the season decided by a touchdown or less for Alabama, which lost 41-34 to No. 2 LSU last week.