Skinner Prepping For Next Fast-Paced Matchup

Considering it was something this Dog defense obsesses over, Deontae Skinner's reaction to the play was surprising. Make that, lack of reaction to scoring a sack last week. "I didn't even notice it!" said Skinner. "I didn't know it was a sack at first until they told me after the game, I thought it was a tackle for loss!"

Well yeah, officially it was that. Skinner put down a Tiger six yards behind the original spot so he does get a TFL. But since it was the quarterback that was also a sack…the very first of this senior linebacker's career. You read rightly; it took 39 Mississippi State games, 27 of them starting assignments, for Skinner to bag a passer.

One would think, then, the man might have done a little dancing later. It speaks to the person that Skinner really is, though, that he celebrated not at all. Or that he treated the feat much as he did any other stop. Satisfying, sure. Exciting even, since it's been such a long time coming. Yet here the senior is going about another game-week's business as usual. After all, tackling is exactly what Skinner came to Mississippi State for, right?

"I mean Coach is going to put us in certain positions each play. I'm just ready to line up, it doesn't matter where I line up at, I want to make plays."

This, Skinner is doing just fine. He's tied for the team tackles lead, along with cohort Benardrick McKinney, at 19 stops apiece. But where the middle linebacker has a half-sack, also scored last Saturday, weak-side man Skinner has been stronger in what Coach Geoff Collins calls the ‘mayhem' statistics. Skinner not only got that full sack but in the home opener he intercepted an Alcorn State pass, also the first pick of his career.

So he's off to quite a start on this senior season…which is what Skinner expected of himself here in 2013.

"I just feel overall I got better each and every way. Physically, mentally, and really just as a linebacker. I feel like I've matured more and they're helping me with the defense and everything. And just knowing what to do, which is get the running back down and fill those holes."

Working at the will-‘backer position Skinner indeed is charged first and foremost with stuffing rushers. And here the Bulldog defense has made some pretty quick September progress. After giving up 286 ground yards to an Oklahoma State offense which prefers the air game, Mississippi State was supposed to struggle against a ground-based Auburn attack. Instead they held the Tigers to 120 yards total, nothing longer than 15 yards and that on a late-game quarterback scramble.

It wasn't entirely what Collins and club wanted but clearly better as the Dogs handled both straight rushes or read-type keepers. Plus, the defense came away with some restored confidence.

"That made a big difference, that let us know we can stop the run," said Skinner. "If it's up the middle or on the outside it doesn't matter. So we feel like we're going to be prepared each and every week. I feel Coach is going to put us in great position. So that's our main focus, just stopping the run."

The flip-side of this situation of course is the painful 339 yards of Auburn passing. But as Collins pointed out nearly half that came on just three plays and one where a Dog defender simply fell down to allow a 76-yard touchdown play. Without the slip, that one was safely stopped.

So Skinner sees no need to rip-up the general defensive system and start over. He uses a stretch of short and stopped Auburn series, after giving up some early points, as proof of progress. "Those three-and-outs I knew it was having fun, we knew we were doing our assignment, we were doing everything the coach wanted us to do and we were carrying out our job each and every play.

"I don't feel it was poor defense at all. I just feel like we came into this game like each and every week wanting to stop the run. It probably opened up some passing lanes but our main thing each and every week is to stop the run first."

That said, Troy presents a very different challenge this week. This is a pass-first offense and intends to push the tempo even more than did Oklahoma State or Auburn. Mississippi State saw it first-hand a year ago when the Trojans piled-up 572 yards on 87 snaps, operating at a near-reckless pace meant to keep the Dog defense on their back paws all evening.

More of the same appears in store this week, though State could benefit from two factors. First being the home field where Coach Dan Mullen has not lost a non-conference contest since 2009. And second, a high chance of wet weekend weather which would at least seem to play to MSU's favor. Though given weeks of dry weather Scott Field can absorb a lot of rain right now.

Regardless of what precipitation may or may not be in the air Saturday evening the football surely will. Often. So the Dog defense is focused on forcing more of the turnovers seen the last two games, or even sacking the passer first. More so the former, Skinner indicates, though a forced fumble is equally satisfactory.

"During pass/skel when the ball is thrown or anything Coach always wants us knocking the ball out. We don't do too much contact and taking guys to the ground obviously, so anything we can do before they get the elbow down we want to do that and get that ball out the best way we can."

Pressure is, mostly, the job of a defensive line that has yet to really assert itself in pass rushing; and coverage falls foremost to the secondary. Meanwhile Skinner and McKinney are literally in the middle of everything, and what they see and say before snaps is maybe more important than what they do afterwards. It's just what would be expected of two Dogs both nominated for the Butkus Award, right?

"I feel like me and Benardrick have done a great job with the defense. And I feel all our linebackers are young so me and Benardrick are stepping up in that leadership, as Coach wants us to do, and we're doing the best thing we can do each and every week."

Speaking of youth, it's worth noting that for all the skill and experience Skinner and McKinney and Matt Wells bring to the '13 field, their coach isn't shy to replace a starter with one of the rising ‘backers in this bunch. Richie Brown, Zack Jackson, Beniquez Brown, all are taking turns at a rate unseen last season when State rode the starters almost exclusively. It certainly bodes well for the unit's future since Skinner is the only senior here.

More immediately, the oldest Dog doesn't mind splitting snaps with youngsters. "Having those breaks is real good. You always want to be able to play at your maximum effort each and every play. When I get those breaks I feel I can come back in and produce at a high level."

And the level has to be very high Saturday against a Trojan attack which will take all sorts of chances and force the play-pace all evening. Schemes and skills count of course. It is the attitude which Skinner says matters more, beginning with the veterans.

"I just feel everybody has to step up, and in a huge way. Last year I felt we had that leadership to get guys going; this year I feel we've got that leadership and the guys are going to get going, and we're going to try to shut Troy out the best we can."

And who knows, maybe Skinner can set a tone by scoring another sack. It might have been a surprise to get that first one at last. "But that's always good, hopefully this week I can get some more."


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