“Everybody Just Needs To Lock On”

They hear the questions and concerns all the time. It’s what they see during direct review which keeps Bulldog defensive backs upbeat. “We’re not far off at all,” insists safety Jay Hughes. “We just have to learn how to get our hand in there with the ball, and be more aggressive at the point of attack.”

That’s how the Mississippi State secondary will approach—attack, even—their upcoming SEC tests, beginning Saturday when the #12-ranked Bulldogs host #6 Texas A&M. Instead of playing anything safe, the defense wants to take things right at an Aggie offense which puts up points in great big bunches on, well, everyone.

It is that very matchup in fact which has drawn most game-week attention. The prospect of an A&M air attack that averages almost 450 yards weekly, against a Dog defense which is 13th in conference coverage, looks like where Saturday will be won. Or lost.

Or, not? Because senior strong safety Hughes has a different angle on how the first four games played-out for his secondary squad. As he and coordinator Geoff Collins point out, the Bulldog defense has proved pretty competent when measured by completions (or lack thereof rather) percentage. But…

“It’s just big plays, man,” Hughes explained. “Just one or two big plays here and there. We’re not a bad at all, I think a lot of people are making it bigger than what it really is. It’s just stats and those big plays we give up here and there.”

Big plays which certainly stand out, since too many of them have gone for touchdowns. Much like a ‘control’ pitcher who doesn’t get many strikeouts, the scoreless innings are forgotten each time a good guess by the batter sends one out of the park. Now here comes a bunch of Aggies that aren’t afraid to swing for the fences any snap, any situation.

So Hughes understands why such questions come. Regardless, “It doesn’t change our mindset. One thing we can do is stay as close as we can to the receivers and by that I mean challenging routes, just playing the ball in the air.”

That ball will be there lots this week. Texas A&M’s opponents have varied widely and wildly so far to be sure, but the consistency has been relying on the air game. In their two conference matchups, the Aggies have rushed 159 times and thrown 213 passes. In the two SEC games, South Carolina and Arkansas, it’s been six passes out of each ten snaps and since lots of the carries were scrambles the play-calling ratio is over two-to-one.

Though, Hughes says, statistics aren’t exactly definitions. All those bubble screens and short underneath tosses? “Those are just an extension of the run game,” says a veteran safety who has seen just about anything a SEC offense offers.

And run or throw, the name of the A&M game is to eventually suck-in coverage. “I think they want to go deep.” If the Aggies accurately scouted State’s secondary showings against UAB and South Alabama, and that frantic fourth quarter at Baton Rouge, they’d be foolish not to take such shots.

The extra element is the pace A&M will want to play at. Though, they aren’t alone in this as tempo attacks take the lead in college football. Mississippi State has that aspect to its own offense too so the Dog defense can get that much more practice exposure these days.

So it’s nothing new to this club and especially so for old Dog Hughes. Simple, no, but not new either.

“It always presents a challenge to our secondary. Just because of the simple fact they’re a tempo team and a high-powered offense. One things we can do is play with a lot of energy, we have a lot of guys that can rotate in and out.”

Not only that, the Bulldogs have gotten good at running guys on and off the field when possible. It’s made simpler since the main pass-rush package re-aligns three of the defensive linemen. The fourth hustled off for an extra defensive back or whoever suits the setting. That’s easier than trying to get the bigger bodies placed on the line.

Whatever the rotation, Hughes said this defense knows their roles. “All we’re asking of each other is go hard, and you get tired we’ve got somebody to come in and get you.” Going hard is all the more critical in this overall matchup, when the Aggies hurry up to the line to begin each series and try to out-run the clock.

“The thing with tempo is you have to win on first and second down,” said Hughes. “If you can stop them on first and second down it makes everything easier on third down.”

Easier still isn’t easy. Still in a game where both sides expect to score, lots, the outcome usually hinges on making just a couple of stops. Or even just one at the right time. Take the 2013 meeting when the squads traded shots all afternoon and A&M came out ahead 51-41. Funny thing, though, Hughes said. Those Bulldogs returned not so much burned by the experience but invigorated for the rest of that season…and on into this one.

Hughes missed the game itself recovering from opening-day injury. But, “I went on that trip. One thing I can say about that game, I think we kind of found our identity. We learned how to finish the entire game, not just play three quarters. Just finish the whole game. Obviously that’s something we’re still working on and trying to get better.”

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