It was a scene that has played out countless times to a list of players too long to remember, and it was vintage Nick Saban.
With 51 seconds left on the fourth-quarter clock and Alabama leading by 41 points, Saban’s headset came off -- but not to celebrate. In a bout of rage, Saban stormed onto the field, pointed with his thumb toward to the bench and barked at freshman nose tackle Tim Smith all the way back to the sideline.
Smith had jumped offsides on fourth-and-1, keeping Mississippi State’s last-minute drive alive.
Saban’s frustration, of course, stemmed not only from the game situation but the knowledge that at some point later this season or further in the future, Alabama might need Smith to avoid the same sort of mistake when a game is actually on the line.
Smith’s penalty was the most visible but not the only blunder Saturday night by young Crimson Tide players who received playing time during the 41-0 blowout.
“This bye week, a point of emphasis is going to be to get some of these guys to where they can play winning football,” Saban said. Alabama is off this week before returning to play Nov. 14 in Baton Rouge.
The performance of Alabama’s youngest players has been a mixed bag this season and Halloween’s win, which improved the Tide’s record to 6-0, was a night of trick-or-treat play from freshmen.
Beginning the game in its six defensive back package against Mississippi State’s four-receiver set, Alabama started three freshmen on defense: outside linebacker Will Anderson, slot cornerback Malachi Moore and sixth defensive back Brian Branch.
That group continues to emerge as important pieces in a potential Alabama national-title run. Moore, who left the game in the closing minutes with a stinger, and Branch each notched two pass break-ups, while Anderson had his most disruptive game behind the line of scrimmage. The five-star pass rusher finished with five tackles, including two for a loss, as well as two quarterback hits.
“Brian played a big-time game,” cornerback Patrick Surtain said. “He stepped into the secondary full of confidence and we trusted him to be in the game. He prepared during the week like he was ready to go in and make plays. It showed out there on the field.”
Offensively, Alabama received its best game yet from redshirt freshman running back Trey Sanders. The former five-star recruit had been limited to mostly late-game situations through five games but with senior backup running back Brian Robinson not fully healthy, Sanders saw a string of carries beginning in the second quarter Saturday.
Sanders, who entered the game averaging only 3.0 yards on 18 carries, doubled that rate in picking up 80 yards on 12 runs in the shutout win over Mississippi State.
“[He had] a real positive night, from my standpoint,” Saban said. “I think that will help his confidence. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say we need more guys to step up and have roles on the team.”
Getting players such as Sanders on the field during a regular season lacking non-conference games has been a challenge, and has been limited to second halves of comfortable wins over Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi State.
“It was not pretty,” Saban said of backups’ playing time in the season-opening victory at Missouri.
Five-star freshman quarterback Bryce Young lost a fumble in that Sept. 26 game, and added another to end his second and final drive Saturday night. Young, in limited snaps, now owns half of Alabama’s lost fumbles this season.
In his playing time this season, Young has operated behind a combination of Alabama’s starting and backup offensive linemen, and with a range of experienced and younger skill players.
Young’s first possession Saturday included all of Alabama’s starting line except center Landon Dickerson, but a trio of freshmen wide receivers in Javon Baker, Thaiu Jones-Bell and Traeshon Holden. He went 0-for-2 passing, throwing a screen pass off target under inside pressure before having a third-down swing pass dropped by Robinson on a somewhat errant throw.
Alabama subbed out its starting offensive line for Young’s second drive, and that group committed a false start before its first play. After five consecutive runs, Young faced a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line. He faked a handoff before attempting what appeared to be a pass to his left; the ball left Young’s hand awkwardly and was ruled a fumble recovered by the defense.
Young has led five drives this season that were not end-of-game situations. Those have resulted in two field goals, two lost fumbles and one punt. One of the field-goal drives, at Tennessee, included a dropped touchdown by Slade Bolden. The other field-goal drive, at Missouri, was kept alive by a muffed punt return.
The would-be touchdown drive in Knoxville had Saban encouraged.
“I thought he showed a lot of improvement from the first game that he played in up at Missouri in terms of his poise,” Saban said last week. "He made a couple of third-down conversions that showed a lot of poise.”
For the season, Young is 8-of-15 passing for 84 yards, while he has run six times for net zero yards.
Meanwhile, the Tide’s three freshmen receivers -- Baker, Jones-Bell and Holden -- have all yet to catch a pass this season.
“We’re going to have to play [without] Jaylen Waddle for the rest of the season,” Saban said. "So I think other people have to step up. I think we’re gonna have to get some consistent performance out of a lot of players.
“We got to play some guys at the end of the game today, which I thought was good. But they got to step up and learn how to play, too. Learn how to play fast. Know what to do. Know how to do it. Know why it’s important to do it that way. Hopefully we can get them some confidence."
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.