Down 9-3 on the road in the first quarter, Mississippi State’s defense was in a precarious position to still be in the game’s opening period. State’s offense had been struggling after three possessions had resulted in a punt, an interception and a field goal, and it was up to the defense to do something to get the team not just back in the game, but in the game at all.
Following MSU’s field goal to close the Louisiana Tech lead to 9-3, State forced a quick three-and-out and Tech sent out their punting team, pinned deep in their own territory. On the opposite sideline, sophomore defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons was calling to the coaches and begging them to let him stay in. His team needed a big play, and he was ready to make it.
“I was like, ‘Coach, leave us on the field. I’m going to go block it,’” Simmons said.
MSU’s coaches obliged, leaving most of the starting defensive front in the game, but they still called a “safe punt” where the majority of the team dropped back to help block for Gabe Myles, the punt returner. Myles, of course, never touched the ball. The closest he ever got was when the ball flew directly into and bounced straight off of the outstretched hand of a leaping Simmons a split second after the snap.
“I was on the other side [of the formation from Simmons],” junior linebacker Gerri Green told reporters after the game, describing what he witnessed and experienced. “He blocked it, and then it was actually me – the ball was in front of me, it was a slow roller and everybody was behind me, so I just thought, ‘fall on it.’”
And then, not for the last time in Ruston on Saturday night, Simmons scooped up a piece of Green’s glory for himself.
“When I fell on it, it popped up,” Green recalled, “and he came and fell on it. I was like, ‘Man, you just took my touchdown! You just took my touchdown!’ But I was happy for him, I was just messing with him.”
After the ensuing extra point by kicker Tucker Day, MSU not only held the lead, but dominated the rest of the game on both sides of the ball, not allowing Tech’s offense any more than a field goal until garbage time late in the fourth quarter. And the fact that State went on to win 57-21 continued to be due in large part to the combined efforts of Simmons and Green.
Green, all by himself, racked up an incredible stat line of seven tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. The only things he missed are the two would-be touchdowns. Those, of course, went to Simmons.
Five tackles, two touchdowns, a blocked punt, a blocked extra point and the longest touchdown of the day – Simmons was an absolute star, just as the coaches who built MSU’s defense were counting on him to be.
Five minutes into the third quarter, with MSU then up 43-13, Green and Simmons teamed up again when Green delivered a strong blow to Tech’s quarterback, knocking the ball loose for Simmons to scoop up once again.
“It’s all because of Gerri,” Simmons made sure to explain afterward.
But when Simmons picked up the ball, it was Green and the rest of his teammates who were racing along behind him as the 300-pound lineman sprinted – as much as someone built for running no more than several steps at a time can – for the entire 90 yards between the point of the recovery and the opposite endzone.
“We knew he had it,” Green said. “We had him. We had a barricade behind him so no one would catch him. We just had to make sure he didn’t run out of gas.”
“I didn’t even know,” Simmons said, confessing that he thought would-be tacklers were on his tail the whole time. “I thought they were close. I just saw gold. I was just running. Running hard.”
“He was outstanding, man,” Green said in summation of his younger teammate. “Two touchdowns by a guy his size, that’s crazy. We’re proud of him. He had a little speed on the second one. It’s an incredible night for him.”
It was great night for Green too, of course, who very well could’ve been the star of the game himself had those been his scoops instead of Simmons’. But neither player cares who gets the glory or the points, nor do any of their teammates. “We work together as a team,” Simmons explained, while Green’s smiles describing the game and the play of the defense said everything about how he truly felt.
“We’re just a closer unit,” Green shared. “When we were down 9-0, we told each other to just stay together. It’s our first adversity this season. We just had to jell together and be together in that time.”
For Green, Simmons and all others who have been a part of such special defensive performances in back-to-back games to open the season, it’s a joy to be a part of. Under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, MSU’s players are finding their roles, discovering their abilities and putting into action a direct and successful plan.
“Oh, it’s amazing,” Green said. “When you’ve got plays like we made tonight – guys running 90 yards for a touchdown – it’s just awesome. Just to play in this defense is exciting.”
And certainly, it helps when Green and Simmons have nights like they did, no matter who gets the glory.