Play-Making Is Priority For Bulldog Defenders

Jay Hughes

All talk of comparing schemes and systems and statistics is fun, and for sure the coaches are paid to line their guys up appropriately. Credit Chris Wilson's candor though. "At this point in the season the good teams are making plays. That's what it will come down to again Saturday."

By ‘again' the defensive coordinator refers to the most telling stat of Mississippi State's season, especially on his side of the football. When the Bulldog defense makes enough plays, the team can win just as happened against Arkansas. When they don't…the record speaks to that, too.

Naturally Wilson wants to think the Bulldogs are back on track after an encouraging home-field finale.

"We were fortunate enough we started making a lot of plays," he said. "In the last three weeks that's kind of been our deal. In the eight games we've won, we've created three or more turnovers, three or more game-changing plays. This week we had five of those opportunities. When you can do that it gives you a chance to win every football game."

Winning this weekend will assuredly require State (8-3, 4-3 SEC) make more plays than host Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5) on a hostile field. The Rebels' record might not look so hot, with a three-loss streak in league play that leaves them teetering on the edge of bowl eligibility. But anyone watching lately has witnessed a squad more than capable of making their own plays, in bunches. Just one more made along the way and they would be locked into post-season play.

So Wilson appreciates the challenge in store for a State squad that has only just snapped their own three-week streak. All came against top-ten teams, true, yet the frustration was obvious all the same. The Bulldogs had gotten used to making defensive plays and taking balls away when winning the first seven games. As Wilson noted, takeaways were the difference.

State in fact led the NCAA in turnover margin when they were 7-0…then came away with just two fumbles and no interceptions for three lost weekends. Last Saturday though was just the reversal of fortune Coach Dan Mullen sought as Bulldogs came up with three fumbles and two interceptions.

And the win. "What our guys did was when they were in position they made plays," Wilson said. Such as his specific example, when alternate CB Jamerson Love got in front of a third quarter pass and picked it. "Right after a big first down by them," the coach added. No points came off this turnover but it clearly rattled Arkansas into further giveaways that did lead to State scores.

Just as Wilson wanted. "I tell you, no one comes to watch us coach, they come to watch guys play and make plays. That was the key thing, our guys were in position. Our job as coaches is to make sure our guys are in position to make plays."

As to the positioning now… For much of the first half this was a problem as Arkansas was following the examples of Alabama, A&M, and LSU by picking coverages (cover two mostly Wilson said) apart and mixing in interior rushes. "Obviously Tyler Wilson is Tyler Wilson, he was able at one point to go ten-for-ten. And we knew for us to get back in this game we had to mix some things up. We were able to show him some man and show him some pressures, and match our good people up against their good people."

This month Mississippi State has been mixing in and matching up more people than before. Love, for one as he alternates in the secondary with senior starters Corey Broomfield and Darius Slay. Jay Hughes is also playing an increasing role, even starting at LSU in place of Broomfield. What might have looked initially like a search for someone to make plays has actually been proof of development by younger Dogs who can make plays. And be counted on to do so.

Even better, no egos appear to have been bruised in the process. In fact by getting to take turns again at his old cornerback position Broomfield also seems to have regained some spark. "He smiles a lot more!" said Wilson. "I can definitely see his grin a lot more! But that's the great thing about having Corey Broomfield, he's a guy that can play any position for us." And do it immediately, which is an increasing key to subbing and scheming. Slay and Love for example, were able to shuttle on and off the field last Saturday and get in position on time. It means they have accepted shifts in roles.

"And that's been the key," Wilson said. "Any time you have three seniors back there and combine a guy like Nickoe Whitley who is a fourth-year guy, they are able to make adjustments a lot quicker."

This week's question though is how will, or even how can State do such adjusting against an Ole Miss offense which operates no-huddle and hurry-up? In conference play the Rebels average 73 offensive snaps (State just 67) and converts 40% of third-downs. Yet Wilson believes the Bulldogs can still substitute during series even against this reckless Rebel pace.

"If you get the opportunity, you do. You've got to know when and why you're doing it. But the key for this game is getting lined-up and great communication. Because when you go that fast, you're typically not running a ton of plays, that's been my experience." After all, the offense isn't taking a lot of time to read things either before snapping.

"What they are doing is repeating plays and going fast and hoping you miss a gap, miss a fit, miss a coverage, or miss-communicate," Wilson said. "So we have to do a great job getting lined-up and communicating." The key to this, not surprisingly, is linebacker Cameron Lawrence. Other defensive Dogs have their own calls to make and as this season has developed more young leaders are taking such responsibility.

But it is old Dog Lawrence in the literal middle of things who has to keep the show organized as possible. There's no one Wilson would trust more. "Cam is a great communicator. He allows us to get lined-up and he can make adjustments not only at halftime but during a series of plays and get those things communicated. We rely on Cam a ton and he's definitely a coach on the field for us."

A fast-paced offense of course makes the quarterback something of a coach as well. Wilson respects the body of work Bo Wallace has shown even in losses lately.

"He's a guy who you can tell is playing his best now, he understands the system and you can see the chemistry beginning to work with his receivers. In this league he fits right in." By the same token, State's defense has made some pretty good quarterbacks uncomfortable this year in wins over Tennessee and Arkansas…offenses which resemble the Rebel attack in fact.

"You have to show him different looks. You have to be multiple, if you show him anything all the time it's no different from last week, he'll dissect you, pick it apart and have answers. So you're playing the chess match throughout the game and when you figure it out you expect to make some plays."

Interestingly though, making plays does not necessarily mean getting sacks. Those are great of course and something State has struggled with all season, statistically at least. But closer observation of the last two games shows another encouraging trend. Passers have begun unloading a little sooner than was the October case. It's not a sack, not even a ‘hurry' technically. It is progress.

And don't look for the Bulldogs to go wailing after Wallace this week either, not just because he can side-step and take off. "You've got to be able to get there," Wilson reminds for those begging to see Bulldog blitzes. That's the thing, when you're calling a game you have to ask yourself can we get there? Look at the style of offenses nowadays, if that ball is out in two seconds you can bring ten and it wouldn't matter!"

"Pressure is speeding guys up and making them put the ball where you want the ball placed. Sometimes that means on 3rd-and-ten you get them to throw a five-yard comeback; you tackle him and get off the field." It's not as spectacular as a sack, but if it produces the punt Wilson says mission accomplished. Particularly as the ultimate mission is walking out of the hostile house still holding the Golden Egg to show friendly fans…and even interested recruits.

"It comes into play. Any time you're talking, some are already decided, but what this game does is affect guys that are 50-50 deal. It matters in recruiting, it matters to our fan base, it matters to us as coaches. So it is ‘the' game we look forward to and prepare for year-round."

InsideTennessee.com Recommended Stories