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November 7, 2013

Bulldogs bring physical defense to Kyle Field

Dan Mullen's offense gets a lot of attention at Mississippi State because his schemes helped win a pair of national titles at Florida, helped Tim Tebow win a Heisman Trophy, and changed the face of offensive football in the past decade. However, his tenure in Starkville has been marked by better defense than offense (in large part due to issues at quarterback) and this year is no exception. Mississippi State ranks ninth in total offense in the Southeastern Conference but fourth in total defense and is known for playing a very physical style with big people in the front seven.

The Bulldogs play a 4-3 defense under coordinator Geoff Collins but due to the spread offense taking over the SEC much as it has the remainder of the country they'll often work a nickel back into the mix. Like many defenses, they'll use a three man front on passing situations and mix blitzes and coverages.

Texas A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney talked about Mississippi State's size in Tuesday's A&M press conference but it's a unit that's actually got more length than bulk in the front seven. They only have one player, freshman tackle Chris Jones, who goes more than 300 pounds. However, defensive ends Denico Autry and Preston Smith are 6 foot 6, linebacker Deontae Skinner does weigh 250 pounds, and sophomore linebacker Benardrick McKinney is 6 foot 5.

Like most SEC programs, the Bulldogs rotate eight defensive linemen. As a result, two of their top tacklers are Jones and Smith who are backups. Mississippi State's biggest weakness up front is their lack of first step personnel. Other than Jones (who was a defensive end in high school) they just don't have anyone that can attack a gap and get into the opponent's backfield. For example, they've only got ten sacks on the season which is dead last in the conference. Many times, their defensive linemen are in a four point stance at the snap which helps them hold up in point of attack situations but not so much otherwise. Defensive end Denico Autry was a Rivals.com four star defensive end out of junior college (offered by A&M) who has never really lived up to expectations. It's a group that seems to play better when Jones is in the game but he's raw and still learning the game. They'll blitz McKinney and Skinner in passing situations when the Bulldogs go to their three man front but they only have two sacks between them.

They rank tenth in the SEC in tackles for loss and ninth in average per rush. They usually do a pretty good job of protecting Skinner and McKinney and funneling things to them but neither is a capable blitzer. They are better at reading plays, flowing to the ball, and scraping off the protection offered by the front four. Skinner is good at taking on blockers and plays directly at him due to his size, and he can also blitz effectively as he'll let the blockers pick up other defenders and time his blitz just right. McKinney can cover lots of ground and his 6 foot 5 frame is useful for popping up into the passing lanes. However, too many times they will make tackles down the field instead of at the line of scrimmage. The other outside linebacker, Matthew Wells, plays out on the slot most of the time and stays in the game even in passing situations. Freshmen Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown rotate in and have combined for 35 tackles. They have a nose for the ball and there's not much dropoff when they are in the game.

In fact, most of their defensive statistics are middle of the road or below that for the SEC as a whole. They do one thing really well and that's get off the field on third down…they've allowed opponents to convert just 32% of their third down situations…even though they don't get sacks or turnovers (ten turnovers all year). They blitz a lot and play a lot of man coverage in the secondary (either pure man or quarters coverage in which the corners play mostly man on the outside receivers in combination with the safeties). They're physical and but don't have a lot of people with great change of direction or that can adjust to the ball to force negative plays (which comes with starting three newcomers in the unit after losing multiple players to the NFL).

Free safety Nickloe Whitley is a 205 pound safety who is very physical in run support but will struggle with both man and zone coverages. Safety Kendrick Market is 190 pounds is a better open field tackler and good decision maker. They rank third and fourth on the team in tackles behind the linebackers. Corners Cedric Jiles and Taveze Calhoun are young and aggressive and can turn and run with receivers. Calhoun in particular has great hips and can also come off the edge in blitzes. Justin Cox is 6 foot 3 and he and Whitley will take slot receivers when the Bulldogs go to five defensive backs. Overall, due to the blitzing and man coverage, they get put in a lot of man situations down the field and have lapses which results in long plays….24 of them over 20 yards so far this season.

The Bulldogs defense is young and the offense protects them via ball control (time of possession of 33:44 per game) as they face just 64 plays a game. They're missing some experienced players who are injured and their youth means that they have lapses in coverage in the passing game as well as a lack of a pass rush. In addition, they are better at running plays down east/west rather than attacking north/south. If Mississippi State's offense can control the ball again Saturday, then they'll stay off the field and not be exposed for long periods of time. However, the lack of a pass rush and experienced playmakers in the secondary could be extremely costly to the Bulldogs the longer that A&M's offense stays on the field. In fact, given the Aggies' penchant for a fast tempo and their ability to score quickly, Mississippi State will be at a disadvantage anyway against a team that has yet to put up less than 41 points in a game.

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