STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Jake Coker kept approaching the line seeing the same thing. The defense crowded the box, so Alabama’s senior quarterback was forced to pick pass from the run-pass option he was given. And when he did hand Derrick Henry the ball, there was no running lanes for the Heisman Trophy front runner. On four of his first six carries, he was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, dropped before he could get that massive, 6-foot-3, 242-pound frame going.
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had figured out what so many others couldn’t. By having his safeties drop down to help stop the run, by stunting his defensive linemen to create penetration, he successfully confused Alabama’s offensive line and stopped the Tide's running game early Saturday afternoon.
“We knew they weren’t going to play static,” center Ryan Kelly said, “but we didn’t know they were going to move that much.”
Henry couldn’t find daylight and was bottled up for 13 yards in the first quarter, reduced to being a decoy, whether that meant faking receiving a handoff on a play-action pass or serving as a lead blocker.
But a scary thing happened when the sun began to sink below Davis Wade Stadium and those initial 15 minutes of play were over: inevitability crept in. Alabama didn’t panic. The Mississippi State defense continued to crowd the box, but Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin didn’t stop calling Henry’s number. According to Kelly, they knew coming into the game that the Bulldogs might be aggressive and create some negative plays. But at the same time, he said that, “When they do that, they’re vulnerable to overshoot gaps.”
And that’s where inevitability came in. Because on Henry’s seventh carry, he got loose, proving that even when you think you have him figured out, you don’t. The defensive ends raced too far upfield, the tackles were stuffed, a linebacker took a bad angle and whiffed, and Henry was off to the races, splitting two DBs as he raced 74 yards into the end zone. In the fourth quarter, it was more of the same as Henry veered away from eight defenders in the box, found the edge and sprinted down the sideline for 64 yards and another touchdown.
In a matter of a few plays, the best plan we’d seen to stop Henry all season came up bust. As it turns out, by taking away Henry’s size advantage with so many defenders at the line of scrimmage, Mississippi State opened himself up to Henry’s secret weapon: his speed.
“I think that’s the kind of back that he is,” Saban said. “As long as he is, he does a good job of picking his way through holes. But I think that once he gets rolling, he’s fast -- faster than people think and faster than he looks. But what you can always tell is he outruns the angle, and that’s when you know someone is pretty fast.”
Simply put, Henry cannot be stopped. Like Mississippi State did, teams are forced to pick their poison: Do you want him to run you over or run by you? He currently ranks fourth among Power 5 backs in yards after first contact (587) and trails only Florida State’s Dalvin Cook for runs of 30 yards or more (eight). On Saturday, he had just as many yards inside the tackles as out, finishing with 204 total yards, his third 200-yard performance in his last four games, which is tied for second-most in school history with Shaun Alexander.
For his part, Henry is all business. After the game, he didn’t buy into the idea of his picking up speed on long runs. “I’m just trying to score,” he said. “I’m just running.”
And by doing so, he’s running right into the record books and furthering his lead in the Heisman race.
Against Mississippi State, Henry had his 15th straight game with a rushing touchdown, breaking a tie with former Florida great Tim Tebow for the longest streak by an SEC player in the last 20 years. With porous defenses in Charleston Southern and Auburn remaining during the regular season, Henry could very well extend his streak to 17 games.
If that happens, we could be looking at another Tebow comparison.
After all, it was 2007 when Tebow had his 14 straight games with a rushing touchdown. That same year he won the Heisman Trophy.
Will Henry do the same? So far, it doesn't seem like anyone has the recipe to stop him.