Defense Feeling The Pressure To Change Pace

It sounds so simple. To fans staring at conference sacking statistics, or frustrated watching completed passes, the solution seems obvious. Pressure, aggression, blitzing, whatever, just attack and the sacks will surely follow. Chris Wilson has heard it.

And he has the coach's response to pleas for all-out pressure on passers. "The biggest thing you have to understand is can you get there before the ball gets out of his hand? If you can hold your coverage or make him hold the ball a little bit you've got an opportunity to get him on the ground. But if not…"

Wilson need not finish the thought as the consequences are clear. But then so are the results of Mississippi State's ongoing struggles to get after quality conference quarterbacks. In the three-loss SEC streak the Bulldog defense has been beaten at a 73% completions rate. Not only that, but State hasn't come away with an interception in any of the defeats.

No wonder calls for pressure and claims of passivity ring so loudly these days. But with benefit of video-hindsight coordinator Wilson sees something different and deeper. "I say this often, it's just doing your job. Obviously if they don't know that's us, as coaches we have to rep it and communicate it enough. Not just the schematics but the situation we're in and that they hear it.

"And when I say big games, certain weeks that might not get uncovered; against good people that gets uncovered."

Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3 SEC) has certainly been playing good people lately. All three losses have come to Western Division clubs ranked 4th, 8th, and 9th this week. Such top-ten opposition and specifically offenses thrive on exposing defensive issues, which means Wilson and staff now know exactly where the unit is uncovered. Literally in the case of all those completed passes.

Oddly, or at least statistically, Bulldog pass defense (yardage) is smack in the middle of SEC ratings this week…and even a tiny bit better against league teams than overall. This doesn't soothe the sting of giving up big gainers and touchdowns in the air against even top-ten teams, because more was expected of this Dog defense.

Wilson is insistent though that the problem is neither the specific scheme or for that matter hesitation by his Bulldogs, either those three or four charged with rushing or the others back in coverage. "No, I don't see that," Wilson said.

"I think sometimes you either bust it, or the other team executes better! You know, there are times when they execute at a higher level. So I don't see that as much as being able to execute your fundamentals and making the scheme do what it should do. Once we get those things communicated we should do fine."

While execution obviously is the essential issue, Wilson said there is another aspect which falls directly on himself. He and staff have to make the correct calls for every situation in these games; not most of them, all of them because the margins are a whole lot finer than back when the Bulldogs were playing unranked opponents. And for all their scouting and scheming sometimes it just comes down to a guessing game by each side.

This week shapes up this way. Arkansas (4-6, 2-4) isn't ranked but as Coach Dan Mullen reminds the same talent that made the Razorbacks worthy of #8 rating in September is still suiting up today. Many of these players own a three-year win streak over State, too. The one of most immediate concern to Wilson is another Wilson, quarterback Tyler, who doesn't get sacked often and can throw any pass. Such as the personal-record 32 he completed against the Bulldogs last year in Little Rock.

MSU's Wilson has wound through a lot of video looking for how SEC peers have gone after UA's Wilson, with mixed results at best. "Sometimes they (the defense) wins, and a lot of times they (Arkansas) wins! So you've got to really pick your moments on this guy. He's a veteran guy that ‘gets' the difference. He knows when you are in certain coverages. So you have to do a great job of disguising your looks. A lot of times they'll look from the press box to help him out; they'll go fast. So they've got a really good system and you have to really pick moments when to pressure this guy."

And forget notions of consistently selling-out on this passer, by the way. "They have a big-time back, they've got skill guys across the board. Combine that with the receiver, Cobi Hamilton, you have the three-headed monster. So you've got to have a plan in place for all those guys and you have to decide on any given day, what do you have to take away to win the football game?"

GETTING THEIR TURNS: Wilson has been pretty flexible in regard to lineups these last five weeks. For Alabama and LSU, two offenses based on power running, State opened with a four-front built around tackles Josh Boyd and Dewayne Cherrington. Against a more agile A&M quarterback it was a three-front, with big Cherrington replaced by an extra safety in Jamerson Love.

So there is a whole lot of mixing-and-matching figured out for beginning games. What might be more interesting though is the in-game substituting. Though it looked at first like State was simply seeking somebody who might make a play, the truth is Wilson and co-coordinator Geoff Collins want to work a lot more players into every game now. Not just to rest starters, but because the backups have earned their own shots.

"I don't know how many (defensive) players we took," Wilson said of last week's road trip. "We probably played 98% of those guys. The thing our whole program is built on is obviously effort, but development. So to have those guys playing a top-ten program at critical moments, it keeps allowing us to go in a direction we want to go to.

"And it creates competition and just a radical practice environment. When you know guys are going to play you're practicing at a different level. And that's what we've got to have to be one of those top-ten programs, we have to have competition."

Because, Wilson adds, competition within the club ultimately should produce a deeper defense that can beat those better teams. So even with the 2012 stakes so high in November look for continued rotations everywhere. Because, said Wilson, the coaches see enough confidence among the players themselves to put them on the field for-real.

"And it makes practice so much better, creates competition throughout practice. It bodes well for us because now you see these guys are excited every day to go practice because they know they're going to play in games and in critical moments."

FAMILY AFFAIR: Such shifts even extend to the starting lineup. At LSU, instead of Corey Broomfield starting a tenth-straight game (he last didn't open a game in the '11 Egg Bowl) it was Jay Hughes getting his own first start. The sophomore had a solid game with three tackles, 1.5 of those for losses, and broke up a pass in the end zone.

Which left safeties coach Tony Hughes a proud papa. "Because he has worked very hard and developed in our program, like every other kid. It's not special treatment because he's my son, but he did everything required of him in the off-season, in the weightroom, started out as a special teams player, then a backup and a spot player. When his moment came in the big arena he was ready and showed everybody he was ready. And it had nothing to do with me!"

Broomfield played too of course, with two tackles, and maintains his regular role in State's planning. "Corey has been great for us," Wilson said. "He allows us to put him in multiple roles and doesn't miss a beat when he does that. Corey can play corner, safety, nickel, and feels comfortable not only getting himself lined up but communicating to the rest of the guys what has to be done."

Meanwhile Nickoe Whitley stayed the other starter, at free safety, and piled up a career-high 13 tackles. This a week after he got in on a dozen tackles against Texas A&M. The numbers look great yet Whitley has been involved, directly or otherwise, in some big Bulldog breakdowns as well whether in finishing tackles or keeping coverage. Only a coach can factually say who is at fault in any play as they know the plan and call, something TV replay can't accurately relate.

Hughes said there is no lack of confidence on either side here. "You just have to keep working with him. Because he's a proven player for us. And he's an older player for us. He's a guy you have to continue to coach and say we need you to do these things."

In fact, when Hughes said the secondary always needs a ‘quarterback' to keep everyone organized, the first name he game for such duty was…Whitley, as the most experienced safety on the roster. To be sure John Banks is the ranking veteran in the entire secondary, and Broomfield not far behind. So with so many veterans who have not just played individually but have worked together for years, there should not be the sorts of busts and breakdowns State has experienced in the losses. Or even in several of the wins for that matter.

"So we've got some guys with some experience that know what to do, it's just all of those guys being on the same page at all times," Hughes said. By the same token, the coach looks for ways to get J.Hughes, Love, Dee Arrington, and Louis Watson on the field too. "We're not afraid to play any of our kids. They're prepared and they have all been in games, in big moments. That's part of our depth and what we do, have them prepared and when their moment comes to step in and play."

TURNAROUND BY TURNING OVER: But given Arkansas' preference to set a fast offensive pace those substitutes won't have long to both get onto the field and find their place in that snap's particular scheme. Hughes calls it a unique challenge against some Razorback play-makers…as well as an opponent that has been known to throw an interception or fumble the ball away.

As recently as two weeks ago Mississippi State led the nation in turnover margin and was on a record interceptions pace to boot. That pace hasn't just slowed but stalled entirely. There's no better time than this week to get the Bulldog defense back on the takeaway track.

"And that's the difference in big games, especially SEC games," Hughes said. "Sometimes they come down to two or three plays in the whole game; when you get your hands on a ball and an opportunity to get a turnover, you've got to seize the moment. Sometimes that makes a big difference in the game."

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