Everything that makes Texas A&M’s offense work is exactly what Mississippi State thrives on stopping. Everything the Bulldogs want to keep opposing offenses from doing happens to be the same as what the Aggies want to do against other teams’ defenses.
How MSU’s offense does against A&M’s defense will certainly be important, too, but the true test for each team, and what will likely decide the outcome when the two meet on Saturday, will be the finesse and speed of Kevin Sumlin’s offense against the strength and intelligence of Manny Diaz’s defense.
The Aggie head coach has an offense built around the big play, while the Bulldog defensive coordinator has built his unit around stopping the big play. Saturday will be the classic irresistible force meeting the immovable object.
Through four games each – two SEC tilts for MSU and one for A&M – the stats look like each coach would want. A&M is No. 2 in the conference in pass plays of 20+ yards, while MSU’s defense is No. 2 in the conference against those big plays, only allowing six passes of 20+ yards. The Aggies have the SEC’s No. 3 scoring offense (41.5 points per game) while State has the No. 3 scoring defense, only allowing 14.8 points per game while also leading the conference in touchdowns allowed with a mere five in four games.
The stats almost universally mirror each other, giving MSU a pretty good idea of how to approach the game.
“The surest way to get beat by a team like this is to give up big plays,” Diaz said. “We have a formula that if you can create negative plays – we’re always hunting negative plays – and if we can limit big plays, then we can kill drives … We’re pretty decent on third down. We’re pretty decent in the redzone. So it comes back to what? It comes back to the explosive play.”
While it’s the big plays in terms of yardage Diaz doesn’t want to give up, it will also be the big plays in terms of stalling drives that could be biggest, the third down and redzone defense Diaz mentioned. His unit is No. 2 in the SEC in both categories, only allowing opponents to convert on third down 22.64% of the time and having only allowed four touchdowns in 14 redzone appearances by opposing offenses.
That redzone defense was highlighted against Auburn last week when Diaz’s defense didn’t allow a single touchdown, despite the Tigers getting inside the 10-yard line four times.
“They can get yards,” Diaz said, “but in this day and age with the way offenses are, it’s points that still win the games. It’s what we play for.”
And so far, MSU has done a good job in that regard.
Oddly enough, Diaz takes very little credit for MSU’s performance on big downs, especially in the redzone. Head coach Dan Mullen doesn’t take the credit either.
Part of what helps the defense tighten up, to be sure, is the obvious fact that there is less ground to defend when you get into the redzone. A natural barrier in the form of the endzone shortens the ground opposing offenses have to work with. But it’s the mental and physical toughness Court teaches the players, Diaz says, that truly makes the difference.
“Our redzone defense, no matter who sits in my chair, comes down to our strength program, the way that our kids are trained in the offseason with Coach Court and his guys,” Diaz said. “Everything you have to have to be dominant in the redzone, they instill in those guys. All I have to do is just call the defense when they get down there. The attitude, the mentality – that is the core value of our program.”
An example came against Auburn at the end of the first half when the Tigers had advanced the ball to MSU’s two-yard line. On first and goal, Auburn running back Peyton Barber rushed for one yard. On second down, Barber rushed again, stuffed for no gain on the one.
On what looked like it was going to be the next play, Auburn threw out a wildcard, inserting formerly-benched dual-threat quarterback Jeremy Johnson for the freshman pro-style QB Sean White who had been playing the entire game. Mullen called a timeout for MSU right before the snap and breathed a sigh of relief as, when the defense stood back after hearing the whistle blow, Johnson trotted into the endzone.
Diaz and the staff had never seen that particular play call or formation in their film study. They were taken aback by it, but during the short timeout they made a quick adjustment. The defense returned to the field with a contingency plan for anything. If Johnson returned, they had a defense for it. If White came back out, they had a defense set for him, too.
White, it turned out, took the field as the quarterback for the crucial third down play, and as the defensive line crashed onto the offensive line as soon as the snap came, the ball was fumbled, bounced back eight yards and was fallen on by Barber at the nine yard line. On the ensuing fourth-down, the Tigers missed a field goal and finished the half with zero points.
Said middle linebacker Richie Brown, who was responsible for the tackles on first and second downs, “I think it’s just kind of the Mississippi State mindset since we’ve been here. We might bend, we might get knocked back sometimes, because that’s gonna happen in football, but we’re not gonna break. That’s just the mindset. From the strength staff to the coaches, it’s just kind of been how we practice. Bad things happen; get back on our feet, stop the next drive, put the ball down.”
That mindset is something MSU quarterback Dak Prescott recognizes as he watches his defense from the sideline. It’s something he’s experienced himself. As he’s said before, big-time players make big-time plays. Prescott has been the catalyst for comebacks, two-minute drills, redzone scores and third and fourth-down conversions.
The goal for his teammates on defense is the exact opposite of his on offense, but the approach is the same on the mental side.
“They just draw a line in the sand,” Prescott said of MSU’s defense. “Bend but don’t break. I think they’ve showed exactly that this year so far. They’ve given up some yardage and put themselves in bad positions in the redzone, but they come out with fourth down stops or no points on the board. They just flip the switch and they just go lock in and make plays. It’s great to see.”
Against A&M Saturday, Diaz and his defense will have plenty of opportunities to make those plays. What they do with those chances may decide the game.