Cougar Spread Presents MSU Matchup Challenges

Manny Diaz doesn't know who Houston will put under-center for the opening snap this Saturday evening. Want to hear something even more interesting? "And we don't care," the Bulldog defensive coordinator said. "It won't much matter whoever it is."

Just don't read Diaz' comment as dismissing or much less demeaning Cougar quarterbacking. In fact the Mississippi State coach is paying the upcoming opponent a real professional compliment. See, Diaz and the Bulldog defense are preparing for a program more than a player.

"And one thing, just through the years playing these types of offenses, what makes them great is they do what they do," said Diaz. "I know ‘system' sometimes is a dirty word but they have a style of play and offense that no matter who the triggerman is they move the ball and score points. So we have to get ready to play their style, their system regardless of who the triggerman is."

The quarterback State does not have to prep for is the one who threw for 434 yards on the Bulldogs a year ago at Scott Field. Heisman candidate Case Keenum was lost for the year to injury in the UCLA game two weeks ago, a setback for Houston as well as college football in general. The Cougars threw a true freshman into the breach and Terrance Broadway responded with two scoring drives that day and a victory over Tulane in his first start.

There are a couple of ironies to that, too. The last time Houston put a true frosh under center, or in the direct snap position anyway, was in 2003…and in week three of his debut season he directed a victory over Mississippi State at Robertson Stadium. Also, Coach Dan Mullen recruited Broadway because he saw the play-making potential. Now State has to prepare for him in a rival uniform.

Diaz has seen the skills as well in early scouting work. Yet this coach also gives as much credit to the Cougar system for continued offensive success as quarterbacks come and go. Or, go down. Diaz doesn't have to look far for comparisons.

"They've got some Texas Tech in them. There is a lot of that ‘Leach family tree' that I think a lot of their influence comes from. The word ‘spread' gets used a lot but I'd say they come from more that side of the spread tree. We've gone against Texas Tech before in my career and Coach (Chris) Wilson played them a bunch at OU so we have some familiarity defending that style of offense."

And where to begin a defensive gameplan for this matchup? Why, the same place State always starts scheming regardless of opponent style. Kolb, Keenum, Broadway are all superb slingers but that is not the first focus for Diaz.

"That's been true through the years even playing Texas Tech, you've got to make them one-dimensional. You've got to take away the running game and that's a great challenge because they do a great job scheming up the run. (Bryce) Beal is a really, really good running back. But that's standard focus every week, that will be the first thing we've got to do."

At the same time there are fresh concerns about how State will handle Houston's air attack given the most recent test results. The Bulldogs struggled at times to handle SWAC program Alcorn State, not getting enough pressure on the passer and leaving receivers open. Wide open, at times. When a reporter asked Monday if reviewing the game and particularly the second quarter was frustrating, Diaz countered "Aww, it was terrible! It was horrifying!"

Strong statements indeed. But Diaz also thought State's defense meant to make a strong statement of their own against a lower-Division foe—"Our kids really, really wanted a shutout, for a lot of reasons"—and when the Braves broke a long run early he saw a bunch of Dogs on the sidelines "not knowing what to do." Part of the motivation was also concerns for teammate DE Nick Bell who had undergone surgery to remove a mass on his brain. Bell is recovering as expected in Nashville.

A confused club gave up a couple of touchdowns, albeit one that should have been overturned for an out-of-bounds end zone catch, and was out of State synch going into the locker room. "In a way that's sort of our maturation process, of learning how to be who we want to be and how to handle teams like that." And the defense put together a shutout second half.

But any lapses in focus this week will surely cost even more as Houston is State's equal, and playing on their home field to boot. At least the Bulldogs head to Houston not thinking in terms of a shutout; their real goal is to avoid a shootout which would favor the home team.

"There's not a lot of games I like to be in shootout, I've got to be honest!" Diaz said. "Despite their style of offense we have to do the things we hold dear; be good on first down, defend the run well, defend the short passing game, and get off the field on third down. And, play well in the red zone."

That is in fact the key for Diaz' plans. He says it is unrealistic to ask his defense to keep the Cougars from moving the ball up and down the field. A quality running game and short passing plays that are essentially open-field runs mean Houston will gain a lot of ground between the 20s.

So, "The red zone is a big, big deal against these styles of offenses," Diaz said. "The big thing is you have to get more than one guy to the ball. Houston has outstanding athletes and they are capable of winning a lot of one-on-one matchups. So we have to as much as we can get more than one of ours to where one of theirs is." And, he added, make them "go the long way against us."

Easier said than done of course. And as the last four games have showed, athletic quarterbacks with strong arms have caused Bulldog problems in both coverage and containment. Houston adds another twist with a faster offensive tempo and misdirection approaches that the coordinator compares to Auburn. Plus, as he notes, the home team has won its last 18 games. But at least State has gained experience that should be as productive now as it was painful then. And Diaz points out something else.

"Our players know they still haven't played our best game yet. In five games we've had a half where we haven't let someone into our end zone. So we know we can do some good things, but we know we haven't put it together for 60 minutes. Which in a way is discouraging, but it's encouraging because you know one of these weeks we're going to get it."

Saturday would be a fine time to start.

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