"Just playing our game," cornerback Love claimed.
Just, playing it better now than ever before this 2013 season. A Bulldog defense that went a couple of mid-campaign games without taking the ball away has suddenly become a turnover machine. They intercepted Heisman Trophy holder Johnny Manziel three times two weeks ago, and followed that up with a two-pick game against top-ranked Alabama reinforced with a pair of fumbles forced and recovered.
So in just two games, against a couple of the best clubs in the country and maybe the very best one, State scored seven turnovers compared to just four in the previous three SEC outings combined. Love has an idea why.
"We've just been playing with a lot of enthusiasm these last few games. We feel like we can play with anybody in the nation, we just have to continue to grow as a team and as a defense."
There's more than emotion involved, of course. Or Collins' increasingly-famous Wall for that matter. Love said picking and stripping and pouncing are practiced daily and all the extra work is now paying off against not just non-conference clubs. For that matter results are improving beyond turnovers, with all defensive aspects making progress here in November.
Just, Love agreed, not quite enough to beat the nation's best so far. Still the Bulldogs know better what they are capable of as individuals; now it's time to apply ten games' worth of lessons to the two remaining and bowl-eligibility-deciding contests. As Love said, they've seen about everything imaginable from an offense this season already.
"Yes, we have, and I think we've done a pretty good job. We just have to learn how to finish drives, before the half and at the end of the game we just have to finish."
Taking footballs away is the best method of finishing foes' series faster. Thanks to a toughening ground defense, State has seen opponents going more to the air this month. It's offered opportunities for intercepting and they've grabbed both chance and passes. At A&M it was Love, getting his hands on two Manziel throws; his second and third picks of the junior season. Earlier this year he intercepted a Troy throw and returned it 70 yards for his first college points and State's only pick-six of the season so far.
Love was looking in that game, to be sure. "And of course Johnny he likes to run around. Coach has always told us lock-on a receiver that's in your area of the field and stay with them and he'll give you a chance and throw it up. And we've got to make our play."
Against Alabama, now, it was another cornerback coming to the fore. Soph Taveze Calhoun made two remarkable interceptions of a Heisman candidate in A.J. McCarron, who unlike his A&M counterpart "seldom makes mistakes," Love reminded. "We were able to make the big plays in the game. And of course I had one that I could have picked." Love is still beating himself up for letting a potential pick-six go off his gloves that could have turned the entire game…and earned a more prominent place on the Wall.
"I mean you just have to make every play, you can't make anyone else's. You just have to make yours when they come to you."
More chances are coming the secondary's way these days, as up to November only FS Nickoe Whitley had a multiple-interception game. The senior snared two Auburn passes, has four on the season. Love credits an improving pass rush by the front four, five, six, whatever Collins chooses to send on particular plays. But the coach sends credit back the secondary's direction because their coverage is clearly closer than before. It isn't producing lots of sacks per se but more passes are being either thrown away, or thrown to Bulldogs.
"It works together; the front end gets pressure and the quarterback ends up throwing it up and see if his guy we make play. And we go make that play." Sure, but that was almighty Alabama and a no-nonsense offense that gives nothing away. How did State's secondary take McCarron out of his comfort zone?
"It was basically off our disguises. You can't let them see what you're doing, you know? You have to disguise it. And Calhoun made a heck of a play on both those interceptions, a heck of a play! And he did his job," Love said.
"We were communicating. You have to communicate with other guys. Alabama ran a lot of crossing routes and we had to communicate and connect with the route coming towards our way." The Crimson Tide threw more than that though, as did A&M and South Carolina before. This included more deep strikes which State seemed prone too in September and October.
All of a sudden such longballs are being broken up, even in the last possible instant by Whitley, Calhoun, Love, et. al. They've each recorded remarkable tip-aways in end zones worthy of highlight video. True, it would be even better if such last-chance saves weren't necessary in the first place. It's just an encouraging development that whether dramatic or routine, passes are being interrupted if not outright intercepted.
"That's a good thing, that we are making those plays," Love said. "But we've got to make every play that comes our way and just try to get better."
Love himself has been getting better, mostly by getting healthy. He opened 2013 at left cornerback and promptly got hurt; not badly but enough to miss the next two starts. When Love returned it was at right cornerback and he's started six of the last seven turns there. Despite the down-times he still leads the team with five passes broken-up.
"I feel pretty good. I just got to try to stay healthy and finish out this season."
Crunch-time is here for Mississippi State, 4-6 and needing to beat both Arkansas and Ole Miss to extend the program's bowling streak to a record fourth-straight season. The Razorback road trip to Little Rock is a distinct change of pace defensively. This is not just a run-first foe but a run second and third and as often as possible. Arkansas has been a bit turnover-prone, with 14 of them in six SEC games; but the offense is vastly improved here at the end of their struggling season.
"We watched the film Sunday," said Love. "We just have to play our game, I'm sure we'll stop the run, and just play our end in the backfield." Which means more than coverage, as Arkansas has enough of a new passing threat to keep the cornerbacks honest. Love and Calhoun and their rotation teammates have to react instantly and correctly in support.
"The corners in our defense we're in the run-fit too, in certain situations. If you have to stick your nose in there you have to do it. We just have to come down and make a play."
Beyond the tactical challenge is the intangible aspect; at last the Dogs are playing an unranked opponent. Yet this is an obvious trap, even for a veteran like Love. "Coach made a big point of emphasis on it in the meeting. It was like, if we don't dominate like we did last Saturday it will be a disappointment to us." Not to mention fatal to all post-season hopes.
"We're coming to the end of the season, we just have to come together and finish off the right way," Love said. "We feel pretty good. We just have to play every team like we played Alabama, is how I look at it. It's all in the finish. We just have to finish."