Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald breaks free on a big run against Auburn on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch
October 8, 2018 10:41:07 AM
STARKVILLE -- Every number suggested Mississippi State's defense was not the problem through its 0-2 Southeastern Conference start. Yet, they found themselves being challenged by coordinator Bob Shoop.
He told his players, "When is good not good enough? When better is required."
Thus, MSU's defense was challenged to do more. An offensive revival made its better not needed, but the defense delivered it anyway.
In holding No. 21 Auburn to 90 rushing yards in Saturday's 23-9 win, the unit proved two things. First, when the big moments arise, it delivers. Second, tricks won't work on it for much longer.
What made the performance one of the No. 25 Bulldogs' best was what it did in pivotal plays. The evidence never gets stronger than Auburn's (4-2, 1-2 SEC) third-down performance: 3-for-14.
There were times when fortune was on MSU's side, such as a third down ruined by a fumbled snap and another by a Jarrett Stidham overthrow. But just as many times, MSU had to create its own fortune. Defensive back Jaquarius Landrews did that on the first third down Auburn faced, when he covered his receiver long enough to force Stidham to scramble just to step in front of the line to gain, forcing Stidham out of bounds. He made the play again on the third one Auburn had to face, stopping running back Asa Martin for no gain on third-and-1.
In the first half, Auburn had third-and-1 three times and third-and-2 once. It converted none of them.
"We give relentless effort and we pride ourselves on it," safety Mark McLaurin said. "In the red zone, it's either zero or three (points). We pride ourselves on it, we're going to live by that standard and play by that standard."
McLaurin had a pivotal hand in that play that embodies that approach more than any other.
Running back JaTarvious Whitlow broke through MSU's defense, cornerback Maurice Smitherman being the last obstacle, for what looked like a 42-yard touchdown run to bring the Tigers within a field goal.
Smitherman, in his desperation, "turned the jets on." He was able to get his arms around Whitlow within feet of the goal line; McLaurin, also in hot pursuit, chopped his arm over the top, punching the ball out. What was once an obvious touchdown turned into an empty possession -- all it took was one effort play.
"Coach (Shoop) preached all week it's going to come down to defense," Smitherman said.
That was a moment when good was not good enough, so MSU produced more.
Granted, in previous moments of such significance, opponents have gone to whatever lengths they can to present something unexpected. Louisiana-Lafayette and Kentucky both turned to unorthodox formations when they needed an advantage, and it often worked; Florida broke tendency with, among other things, screens to the boundary side of the field, the one with less room to work based on where the ball is within the hashmarks.
The one touchdown MSU has given up over its last two games came on a trick play, a double pass by the Gators.
Shoop sees it as a sign of respect that teams feel they have to, "play left-handed," against his defense. In the end, it is not a matter of prestige. It is a matter of getting the job done.
Handling the same ideas against Gus Malzahn's offense is no easy task. It is a offense that has come known for using motion, exotic formations, personnel groupings and otherwise to make simple concepts more complex for opposing defenses. Essentially, the things MSU's previous opponents turn to in desperation, Auburn does all of the time.
"It's a lot of mental gymnastics. It's a lot of thinking out there presnap and making adjustments on the sideline," linebacker Erroll Thompson said.
Shoop and all of his players see it for what it is: an attempt to get MSU out of its usual attack mode. The limitations of the 20-hour rule for each week of practice are ever weighing on Shoop's mind. In calling college football defensive coordinator the toughest job in sports, he referenced how one cannot prepare for such diverse schemes in that amount of time; all they can do it rest on fundamentals and wait for the right time to unleash what they like to do.
This week, MSU found its balance. They handled the so-called mental gymnastics better than they ever had before and found ways to generate pressure: a cornerback blitz from Chris Rayford made a fourth-and-7 stop that set up MSU's final touchdown, the one that put Auburn away for good.
The Bulldogs planned on sending a message, and they did just that. One needs more than gadget plays to topple this monster.
"People are still going to try to go to it, but I feel like we put on tape that we can't be beat with that," Thompson said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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