Now four games into the season one might expect a defensive coordinator to already have a clear picture of who and what his unit is. The fact is though Mississippi State's defense continues to be something of a work in progress. Even with six starters and another regular who split snaps back from the 2010 unit, these Bulldogs are still figuring just how everybody and everything fits together.
Certainly State needs the fitting to come faster now as October opens and the Bulldog defense sees two serious ground-pounding conference clubs ahead. The first is this weekend. Wilson's playing and coaching background is just about all Midwestern, but just one year here in the SEC allows him to speak accurately on what is ahead.
"They're going to be Georgia, and put the ball in playmakers' hands."
None more often or better-qualified than rookie runner Isaiah Crowell, the league's fifth-leading rusher overall at 102 yards each weekend. Look closer though and in Georgia's two conference contests he has rushed for 265 combined yards and 5.8 each attempt. Looked at another way, he has 46 out of his team's 94 carries in SEC action. By contrast Bulldog tailback Vick Ballard has 31 carries in two conference games.
"This is a more traditional offense, they're going to run and pound you inside," Wilson said. "They're going to run lead and power and those things your defensive tackles have to count. So this will be a good test for them."
The ‘them' he was specifically referring to were two of Wilson's own defensive line position players, tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox. Unlike September tests against spread-type offenses from Auburn and Louisiana Tech that bias towards the outside, this matchup more directly challenges the muscle and even manhood of interior players. Boyd and Cox, as well as their backups, have to handle their offensive counterparts, then a blocking back, and finally, hopefully face hard-charging Crowell before he gets a step beyond the line.
Though, it needs noting, Tech did test the Bulldog front four fairly often with their big back Lennon Creer, a former Tennessee tailback coincidentally. He gained some ground but not quite enough to finish State off at the end as Tech finished with 107 rushing yards. For that matter a week before LSU's more basic offense was held somewhat in check at under four yards a carry. The Tigers settled for quick outside passes and field goals and only got in the end zone on a well-timed sideline deep throw.
So in consecutive games the MSU defense has handled the ground game capably led by Boyd and Cox with 22 total tackles between them. That's a lot for true tackles these days. "They played well," Wilson agreed.
"But our expectations for them is really high. That's a good thing for them, they want it and enjoy it. But there weren't a lot of people running lead inside." The way Georgia will. What makes UG's rushing that much more effective of course is the play-action passing of Aaron Murray. Fans who only watched the opener against Boise State haven't seen how the sophomore has performed in his two league games.
Murray is second in SEC passing per-game, second as well in efficiency, and—you guessed it—second in total offense. Nor should any attention be paid to a net-negative rushing rate beyond hints that there could be some sack opportunities for an aggressive defense. Boyd-Cox and Co. can't afford to take too many chances because Murray can move.
"He makes a lot of plays with his feet," Wilson said. "If he doesn't see what he likes he can make plays with his feet."
Then again so can the visiting Bulldog defenders, who've shown such prowess in the past. That made their showing at Auburn all the more frustrating because more opportunities were there than State took advantage of. LSU was a somewhat ‘nother matter due to a low-risk approach. Still Wilson's defense remains in-progress as far as forcing opponents out of their comfort zones. Or even mans. Even Louisiana Tech had State a bit back-on-heels too often, right up to crunch time when the Dogs got it done.
Two timely interceptions brought Tech to a thudding stop and set State's offense up to force overtime and win it outright. It all could have been easier, maybe, but the defense took a measure of increased confidence from how they came through.
"At the end of the day you're out there to make plays," Wilson said. "So often you're out there to prevent them, but it was nice to see guys make big plays. That's what we have been missing the last few weeks is generating some turnovers, when you do that obviously it changes games."
Obviously. Even at Auburn it was a forced turnover, an interception returned for touchdown by CB Johnthan Banks, that provided State's only lead. Banks has followed that pick-six with intercepts against both LSU and Tech, that one the end zone pick to keep the game tied. Banks now has ten career interceptions and has edged in front of classmate and fellow CB Corey Broomfield with nine. Each has three touchdowns though, tying them for the NCAA active lead with a Tennessee peer.
Similar statistics for similar play-makers, Wilson said. "The biggest thing is the size difference, one has a lot of length and the other is that typical field-corner that can lock up and play one-on-one quite a bit. John gives you a big body who can really support you in the run game." Which is why Banks has 24 tackles, just one up on Broomfield so far. But then the smaller Broomfield is a nickel-package blitzer as well. The cornerbacks have just one sack between them through four games but their picked-play pressures make a difference for sure.
Of more fan frustration is the seemingly-soft cushion allowed against LSU a week ago. For that matter Tech receivers, as many as four and five in all their spread-sets, had room to roam while State tried to contain them more than shut everyone down. At least up to the end when it was lock down and make a play.
"The biggest thing we saw is where we were able to create mismatches with what we were getting from that offense," Wilson explained. "Every week it will change, obviously some people allow you to play man on them and some allow you to play zone. What we try to do is get a great mix of man in certain areas of the field and when we needed to play zone we played zone."
Of interest to observers was how in the fourth quarter State mixed and matched much more freely, gambling they could get different combinations on-field and lined-up in time against a fast tempo Tech offense. It worked, eventually, forcing those turning turnovers. It was the most use yet seen of such personnel as pass-down DE Shane McCardell and freshman CB Jamerson Love used to cover man-on-man. Partly it was for fresh legs, Wilson said. But also he needed to test these players.
"We were able to play quite a few guys. A lot of our young guys, a lot of our future talent was able to get on the field and that's always impressive to see. We wanted to see those guys and have some success in critical situations, so I was excited. I know they were." As well as older Dogs like McCardell for the change-of-pace he offers at end to the more physical Kaleb Eulls. Look for more of the same, Wilson said.
"Because when you play these up-tempo offenses you have to have some depth which allows you to play well as the game progresses."
Georgia's offense is not quite so exotic but simple doesn't make it easy at all. That is why Wilson rates this the real test for how both his players and plans are functioning a month into the season.