"Pernell is really playing well," Coach Chris Wilson said. "He's taken on a great leadership role for us and is being very productive. The stat sheet doesn't show it. But one thing, he's getting is a lot of slide protection, a lot of double teams." In other words, McPhee is drawing something better—at least for the Dog defense as a whole—than stats. He is getting extra attention by blockers and thus giving teammates their own easier routes into the backfield.
That showed Saturday night when State netted five combined tackles for losses, including one sack. McPhee did get in on 1.5 of those stops behind the line, and was awarded two official ‘hurries'. Wilson does say that on one third down McPhee did have a sack in sight only to have the UG quarterback evade, as he did most of the evening.
"Pernell was as disappointed as we were but he's really playing at a high level right now," Wilson said. "What we have to do is keep him making plays when he's able to."
McPhee was not available Monday for interviews. But Saturday night he did say that as well as State performed in the 24-12 victory, even better things are in store for his side of the squad. "I think we can a dominant defense. Right now we're just a good defense."
Good verging on very good based on the first month. Through three SEC games State's defense has allowed just five touchdowns and the latest came with 84 seconds left after success was assured. Just as impressively, the longest previous TD drive was 68 yards; the other scores were set up on shorter fields by MSU turnovers or kickoff/coverage issues. And if the final score was one-sided, what the Dog defense did in terrible field positions holding LSU to four first-half field goals may have been their true breakout moment.
Under such circumstances an all-star candidate like McPhee is more than content scoring Ws over stats, Wilson said. "The thing we want to do is win games, that is the most important stat. Us playing great team defense allows us to do that. Everybody is buying in. Obviously productivity will come the more we clean up our package."
Does he mean clean up a corps that is already making major strides? Absolutely, said Wilson as he applied an analogy.
"We tell our guys we've got a car that goes 30 miles a gallon and we're getting about 20 out of it. So we have to keep fixing the things we know we can fix." For the record, Wilson said his Crown Vic is getting closer to 20 mpg as well. But then his main job is tinkering with co-coordinator Manny Diaz to make this defense more fuel efficient. Make that, fully efficient. How a big Dog like McPhee gets utilized is one obvious example, too.
"We want to be as multiple as we can, and Pernell is able to rush the passer, he's able to drop into coverage. It gives us a lot of variables in our defense. And that's one thing in this conference because people see you, find you, and attack you." Instead State gameplans to be the aggressor, which includes some fresh twists seen the past two weeks. McPhee will typically begin with a hand-on-ground as a true end, but as the game develops he will take an upright stance and even flex out from the line a step. The opportunity for faster outside pressure this way is obvious.
Then again it might be weak-side LB K.J. Wright coming up on the line as an ‘end' alongside three down linemen. It reflects the shared approach Diaz and Wilson brought to town, and involves more than the front seven.
"Coach Diaz preaches at some point we all become the same person," Wilson explained. "If you're an end dropping into the flat you just became a trap corner. If you're a corner blitzing you just became a defensive end." To that end—or tackle, or whatever—Wilson does not put much stock in conventional notions of positions. A defense can only be multiple if players can fill multiple roles.
"I always tell them, a shade is a shade. We can label it a three-technique, a nose, and all those different things. But at the end of the day a shade is a shade and the thing I believe in is we're multiple. So James Carmon should know what Fletcher Cox does; Cox should know what Josh Boyd does; and so forth. Which allows us to keep the best football players on the field."
But not always keep them there for long. Wilson is pleased with how rotating individuals or combinations has worked so far. Splitting snaps means nobody is getting big stats. But it also means nobody is worn down at crunch time, either. So sending Carmon, Devin Jones, and James Howie in to spell Cox and Boyd has worked out as hoped.
"Those guys have played well in the roles I've asked them be in. what they're really done a tremendous job at is when they've been called up they've executed and played at a high level. And I feel comfortable playing those guys. If you watched us in the game we play guys in every situation, it doesn't have to be early or late. When I feel guys need blows we're constantly rotating first and second groups in and I believe that's allowed us to play better in the fourth quarter."
As hard as it is to let McPhee have a break, Wilson knows the need. Defensive end depth has taken a hit though with the abrupt departure of outstanding redshirt frosh Johnathan McKenzie for personal reasons. So Wilson signaled Monday that some red shirts are about to change hue and other, older backups will see more work this week.
"We'll get some guys in, give some young guys some opportunities to come in and compete, guys like Kaleb Eulls, Corvell Harrison-Gay, and Trevor Stigers. These are great opportunities for some of these young guys to step up and play a role."
And sooner or later, some quarterback is going to feel McPhee's frustrations in a very painful way. This Dog isn't going sackless for much longer, though Wilson has no fears the senior will lose team focus. "I think he believes in our defense. We're trying to get everybody to trust the defense to make plays."