And speaking of pressure…this is an intense topic for the Dog defense. Half-way into the campaign they rank 13th in SEC sack statistics after bagging just eight passers. To be fair, sacks are over-stressed as a measure of defensive prowess with little relation this week to a team's record. For examples, Missouri (23) and Arkansas (20) lead the league in sacks right now and they are at opposite ends of the standings. Whereas Alabama has just 11 sacks in seven games and no one second-guesses their gameplans.
Still in Mississippi State's case sacks—and pressures and hurries--are a sore-ish subject, because they can be correlated to frustrations in third-down defense. Both Coach Dan Mullen and coordinator Geoff Collins spent much of the short open date working on fixing breakdowns in conversion downs that cost the Dogs dearly against LSU and made the Bowling Green game too close for comfort.
Defensive end Smith knows one sure fix: put the passer down before the throw.
"On passing downs we're not getting to the quarterback as many times as we should. We just have to find ways to get to the quarterback."
Smith's opinion is worth asking. He has two sacks, not a lot by SEC standards but most of any Bulldog so far. Both came in the LSU game, too as the junior put on a show by putting on the pressure. But in the process he banged-up a knee and missed the Bowling Green game.
"I feel good going into this game. No issues, I feel 100% or close to it," Smith said Monday. "I could have played but I was told just to be safe and sit it out, and save myself for this game."
There certainly can't be any saving of anything Thursday evening against Kentucky (1-5, 0-3) or anyone else on State's schedule. The Bulldogs understand the need too well of setting the pace defensively much as possible and not let opposing offenses dictate terms. Especially once State creates a third-down situation that should, should favor the defense.
"I think it's lack of focus at times," Smith said. "We just have to focus more on film and the keys to help us get a better pass rush and put more pressure on quarterbacks later in the season."
However, this doesn't mean Collins is turning his Dogs entirely loose. Playing passive is risky, but so is sending too many folk sailing into the backfield. Busted containments, uncovered hot routes, and so on are just as damaging. So Smith says a fine line must be held to.
"We're trying to do our best to contain the quarterback and make sure everything doesn't get outside. You know, make sure we put pressure on and make them do stuff they don't really want to do."
What is interesting here is how sacks aren't keeping even last year's poor pace, but tackles-for-losses are up. This reflects how sound State has been in basic defense and against the rush, even in the SEC defeats. But even with the small sample size of two games, ranking dead-last in pass defense is troubling. Also, Auburn and LSU were a combined 50% in converting third downs, too often with completed passes.
Thus the emphasis now on upgrading the pressures. "We know we're trying to do our best, everybody wants to sack but sometimes you have to take what you get," Smith said. "Along with putting pressure on and making them do what he doesn't want to do, throw quicker than he expects, make them not get the right reads. We're not satisfied but we know we have to take what we get and be satisfied."
Getting Smith back this week ought to help. A true junior, he was activated as a 2011 freshman for his obvious potential in pass rushing. Then last season he led the whole team with 4.5 sacks. He doesn't regret not redshirting, by the way.
"I'm still young, but playing early helped me get a lot of experience. Know what I needed to work on each year, work on something different to try and complete my game as a player." His game is in pretty good shape already as his starting (when healthy) status shows. Interestingly though, Smith doesn't look at sack-stats first when asked what he does best on this defense.
"My assignment," he answered. "I don't feel I've done nothing special so far but I'm trying to get better each game and make sure I execute my assignment the best. Nothing special yet." So then, what would it take for him to feel, you know, special? "I don't know, probably get more sacks! More sacks."
But Smith isn't alone in his ambitions. On the other end Denico Autry hasn't had the senior year he's hoped for so far, especially in sackings and hurries, so he's putting pressure on himself to produce as well. An encouraging development is depth at both ends too, as true soph Ryan Brown and redshirt frosh A.J. Jefferson take their turns and make their plays.
"It really helps make the competition level go up, make everybody work to try to complete an all-around game," Smith said of the younger d-ends. "They're great at run stopping, I'm great at pass rushing, so we all have to try to make our game complete. I help them get better at pass rushing and they're looking at me to get better at run-stopping. So it helps me compete to make myself better every way."
Smith's absence last week points to another fact, or maybe notion, about the state of State at mid-schedule. Injuries have kept the same squad from starting consecutive games and even disrupted rotations. It makes one ask, will the real Bulldog defense now stand up, or lineup rather?
"I feel it's still the real thing coming up," Smith said. "We're still coming together, but its coming. We're going to see the real Bulldog defense real soon." Just in time too, as with an all-SEC game schedule ahead State has left no margin for mistakes in terms of earning a bowl berth. Or winning season.
"We just focus on one game at a time," said Smith. "Everybody wants to go to a bowl game, but we focus on one game at a time so we can take each step. If you focus on a game in a row you won't be focused on the game upcoming. Then when that time comes, it will be great."
And, everyone will be wearing their own official jersies too. It was just an open-week antic of course, initiated by the linebackers and quickly copied by the rest of the defense. "We wanted to joke around. Everybody started switching jersies. I wore Nelson Adams', we witched jersies. It was just random, just find somebody and switch jersies with them."