Dogs Schemes For League's Leading Offense

Chris Wilson claims he isn't a big statistics guy. But obviously he has been looking at the SEC's latest listings. Because the defensive coordinator sure has a good idea where his Bulldogs stack up this week.

"You look at the numbers," said Wilson, without needing a reference sheet even. "Two of the leading tacklers in the SEC at the linebacker position; two of the top defensive linemen at that position; two of the top safeties in tackles and interceptions in the country."

Not a bad recitation by the coach. Not a bad defense for Wilson to coach, either. In fact Mississippi State has seen a marked mid-season turnaround on this side of the ball, with the Bulldogs upgrading their game in most areas. Not all, or more accurately not in ways that always show on that stat sheet such as time of possession, number of plays, and so on.

Still Wilson has been pleased with the progress over the season. Not to mention under the matchup circumstances of 2011. "We've had the opportunity to play #1, and #3, and now I believe #6 now? The key for us is to play and execute at a level well enough where you win the game. That's what we chase every game."

‘Chase' might not be the best word to throw around this week though. Not as State (5-5, 1-5 SEC) prepares for sixth-ranked Arkansas (9-1, 5-1). If Wilson really has glanced at league numbers lately it didn't take long to find the next opponent. And yes…the stats are big. Very big.

For all games, Arkansas ranks first this week in scoring, in passing, and in total yardage; as well as second-best in red zone offense. If any area is merely mediocre it is their third-down conversion rate of under 40%, placing the Razorbacks just 7th SEC-wise. But then they've moved chains 11 times already on fourth downs so that doesn't seem much of an issue.

"It's a big challenge this week," Coach Dan Mullen said Monday. Not to mention a major change of Bulldog prep-pace. "We go from playing the number-one defense in the nation, to playing the top offense in our conference."

The head coach was speaking generally. Wilson can be more specific since his assignment is finding ways to stop, or at least slow, an Arkansas attack that only once all year has been held back. Not shut down, as they still scored two touchdowns against the Alabama defense Mullen referred to. All other games have produced at least 29 points, not to mention wins.

Of course the Crimson Tide offense was no scoring-slouch either and the Bulldog defense kept them reasonably in-check for three quarters. The wear-and-tear involved took its toll in the fourth period, as did lack of scoring support, and allowed Alabama to pound out the 24-7 final. And, do so in trademark, straightforward style.

That is not the Razorback m.o.

"They've got a great system," Wilson said. "And when you combine that with great skill, I think they have elite skill on the perimeter, at the quarterback and wide receiver position. It makes you cover the whole field vertically and horizontally. You mix that in with the big backs they have and the way they can create gap problems, they're pretty good." Or as the stats show, very good.

Nowhere more so than when quarterback Tyler Wilson is on his game and on his targets. The league's leading passer at 285 yards per game, Wilson has tossed 18 touchdowns at a 62% rate with just five turnovers. There are top league tailbacks with more than five fumbles. Nor is Wilson slow afoot, though Wilson says there is an even better runner available in Brandon Mitchell.

"He's very athletic, he can run zone read and speed option. Wilson is a traditional drop-back passer. And he can get out of the way, but he does to throw the ball downfield." Which is a good reason Arkansas has only allowed 19 sacks so far.

The larger reason is UA's Wilson has open targets. Lots and lots of them. Interestingly, MSU's Wilson thinks his unit has a fair degree of experience against such systems. Not an exact match of course…

"But I believe in comparison," the coach says. "Georgia is right there, South Carolina is right there and they're very comparable to those two teams we've faced. And a Kentucky team that put points up. Very similar in elite skills with quarterbacks who can make plays."

At the same time Mississippi State isn't obsessing about the Arkansas air game. They can't.

"There's obviously the misconception they don't want to run the football," Wilson said. "They do." This despite the preseason loss of Knile Davis to an ankle injury. The rumor wire burned out Monday with speculations the junior might return this week, or for next week's West Division showdown at LSU. The odd thing to Wilson is how having the best back sidelined so long has only expanded UA's offense in other areas.

"They're prolific. Obviously you hate to see them lose their running back but that made them dynamic with Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo. They haven't dropped off much." The pair is producing over 100 yards between them weekly with three touchdowns each. "But they throw it so well they create situations for their run game," Wilson said. "You have to figure out a way to play coverage and still be able to ‘fit' the run."

"They take what you give them. They'll count the box and see if they can run the football and if they feel like they get numbers they'll run it at you. If they feel you're stacking the box they'll work you on the perimeter with their skill. And they use their ‘quick' (pass) game as part of their run game, they just raise up and throw to Jarius Wright and Joe Adams and its second-and-four."

Mullen knows all about how quick the Razorbacks can play. And score. A year ago State led 21-17 late into the third quarter, when Wright hauled in a ball for 89 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. It took a field goal on the last play of regulation to force overtime where Davis made the seven-yard touchdown catch for a 38-31 final.

"We gave up some big plays in that game," Mullen said. "That's one of the challenges this team has, you can stop them and stop them and stop them and stop them but they have quick-strike capability. You can stop them 45 consecutive plays then boom-boom-boom they hit three plays."

Mississippi State's defense will be short a starter again as S Nickoe Whitley is done for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. He injured the left leg on the first defensive series against Alabama. Though, Whitley had missed the full Tennessee-Martin game under suspension.

And while Whitley's habit for the hard hit gets more attention, a pair of senior safeties in Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner makes lineup choices simple. The rotation becomes another matter, especially since asking any defensive back to go the distance this game is almost unthinkable.

"Nickoe is a big part of what we do, obviously," Wilson said. "But now it's a great opportunity for a lot of guys on the back end to really step up." Beginning with sophomore Jay Hughes who becomes next in-line at that safety spot with Louis Watson and true frosh Dee Arrington in reserve. Wilson dismissed suggestions starting CB Johnthan Banks, the team's interceptions leader, might move back to the safety spot he played in 2009.

"We do have a lot of guys who have played a lot of reps, played a lot of SEC football. We also have some young, talented guys. You look at Darius Slay, at Jamerson Love, at Jay Hughes. We've got a good talent pool back there. The biggest thing is its game-eleven and those guys really need to show up and be an integral part of this deal."

"And if you want to talk about playing championship defense a lot of that is developing depth. I think some of our ‘backers played every snap (against Alabama), you have to get those guys who can come in and spell you and get those twenty snaps a game."

Wilson's linebackers are hard to take off the field though, particularly as OLB Cameron Lawrence and MLB Brandon Wilson not only lead their team in tackles. They currently stand 3rd and 5th in SEC stops, on that stat sheet their coach says he isn't into, and combine for over 17 tackles per game.

Meanwhile tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd have suddenly picked up their tackle- and sack-paces with 7.5 together, all but one in the last half-dozen games. Losing Whitley is a blow yet the remaining defensive backs have 29 interceptions between their collective careers and seven pick-sixes. More to the point the Bulldog defense has found its own identity since September sputters and kept the club in contention.

"We're a work in progress," Wilson said. "The key to this is we need to figure out a way to win these next two, so these young guys have 15 extra (bowl) practices. That's what we were able to do a year ago, and that's what makes your program different."

The Bulldogs try to win both a SEC West game and bowl eligibility this weekend in Little Rock, with kickoff at 2:30 for CBS telecast.

TRIGGER MEN: Mullen reported Sunday that starting QB Chris Relf suffered a ‘mild concussion' in the Alabama game. It came at the end of the best State series, in the second quarter, which ended with a missed field goal. When linebacker Lawrence immediately got the ball back on an interception and returned to the four-yard line it was alternate QB Tyler Russell running the series, instead of Relf who has become the ‘red zone' quarterback for his run/throw mix. That series also ended on a missed kick.

Today, Mullen said Relf remains day-to-day. "So we'll see. We doubt he'll practice today, but he'll be day-to-day."

Before the injury Relf had worked three games in relief of Russell, and the rotation produced touchdowns in wins over Kentucky and UTM. It even seemed to improve Relf's shaky senior-season passing touch. Still there were inevitable questions about that second-quarter series when after Russell drove the team from the MSU 14-yard line to Alabama's 26 with a second down, Relf was shuttled in.

But as for regarding a quarterback rotation any differently than others in this offense... "You do," Mullen said. "I don't! Vick Ballard gets the bulk of reps at tailback, then LaDarius Perkins comes in and spells him, same situation. We treat it the same, we practice it the same, the kids treat it the same." Besides, Mullen said, State has operated this way before; in 2009 when Tyson Lee started while Relf got increasing snaps as a backup, right up to taking over the Egg Bowl win.

So at least in this coach's mind, a rotation is a rotation is a rotation regardless of who it involves. "When your number is called, go in and do your job."

Speaking of Egg Bowls, the time for this 2011 edition was finally set today. The Bulldogs will host Ole Miss on November 26 at 6:00 for ESPNU.

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