Which is a compliment to how the #2-ranked Tigers operate on offense, even if opponents don’t find it very sweet at the time. Not when Auburn is putting up nearly 500 yards per game and averaging 42 points through five wins. And to be clear, the Tigers could likely play it straight-up and still succeed in most matchups.
But it is the extra icing which can create some serious defensive cavities. “What I mean is a lot of motions to get us off our keys or whatever,” McKinney explained. Quarterback Nick Marshall will suddenly wave in a direction, the running back go in motion one way or a receiver come across from the other end. Every instinct shouts track those moving parts.
“But we have to keep our eyes on the right keys. So we call it eye candy.”
Meaning, McKinney and Mississippi State must disdain such things Saturday and stick to a high-protein gameplan. Not that this is so simple either. McKinney is preparing for his own third shot at Auburn, having been part of a Bulldog win on Scott Field in 2012 and then last year’s last-minute loss. MSU’s middle linebacker can still see Marshall firing for the end zone and deciding touchdown at 0:10.
Not to mention other, equally-key and sometimes-fluke plays that afternoon. Such as another Marshall throw that was deflected right back into the quarterback’s hands for a 37-yard gain. Or a couple of Tiger fumbles they got back on which could have changed the outcome entirely. Such stuff can shake up a defense, right?
Not these Dogs, not even if it all happens again. “We say put the ball down. Big-time players are going to make big-time plays. But we moved on and said put the ball down and try to play the next drive.”
So this week’s study has treated candy and flukes the same, focusing on what counts. Beginning with just keeping the creative Marshall under some sort of control.
“Oh it’s a huge challenge trying to contain a quarterback like Nick,” said McKinney. “Third down-and-long he’s probably going to scramble and try to get the first down, it’s a huge challenge so we’re going to try to keep him in the pocket.” Even that isn’t finishing the job though, since Auburn has yet-another explosive runner sharing the backfield; not to mention three explosive threats outside.
No wonder then the Tigers dangle some sweet-seeming treats to attract attention, especially to lure away linebackers. Also no wonder McKinney and cohorts have invested extra hours in study.
“Me and Beniquez (Brown) and Richie (Brown) and all watching film. The motion is a lot of eye-candy. But watching film we know what they’re going to run so keep our eyes in the right spot and run to the ball and make the right plays.” Plus, McKinney adds, the Bulldog defense can call on some first-hand spring and preseason experience against a dual-threat triggerman. “Dak (Prescott) can run the ball, he can scramble a lot. It prepares us for a team like that with a fast quarterback who can scramble out of the pocket.”
A year ago McKinney came away with nine total tackles, second-most of his sophomore season. Through five victories this year he has ‘just’ 36 stops but that’s no reflection of McKinney’s contributions. Rather it reflects just how busy all Bulldog ‘backers have been, as well as coordinator Geoff Collins’ regular rotation. Proof? Outside linebacker Beniquez Brown is second with 25 tackles, while ‘1B’ team outside guy Christian Holmes is fourth at 23!
State isn’t swapping out the trios just to keep everyone fresh, though that is a side benefit. It’s because both units are up to the task(s). Look what McKinney’s alternate did against Texas A&M, for example, when Richie Brown tied the program record with three interceptions (most ever by a linebacker period) and was national defensive player of the week. And he didn’t start!
McKinney doesn’t begrudge how it was Brown on the field when the Aggies tossed those pickable passes. Or not much. In fact, “When they ran a little hitch-and-go on me I told him be looking for that and he can get the pick. Like a play later he got it!” Though McKinney admits too, “The other two plays he made on his own!”
That only emphasizes how versatile and productive all State’s linebackers have been, whether against ground-pounding Louisiana State or air-it-out A&M. B.Brown has even taken on much of the play-calling duties from his elder McKinney this year. And starter Matthew Wells might be the most under-appreciated linebacker in this league, especially how he handles spread-style offenses.
”Matt is a good player on the perimeter,” McKinney said. “Screens will not be thrown on Matt, or (alternate) Zach Jackson. Matt’s a great player, he clicks in with me and B.B. and all of us just play hard.”
They’ll all have to, harder than ever this weekend since Auburn brings by-far the best-balanced and most impressive offense Mississippi State has seen. Or will see on the 2014 schedule. It’s a lingering irony how the Tigers and Marshall essentially ‘clicked’ as a club on that last-chance drive against the Bulldogs a year ago and went on to make some history.
Now both Western Division squads re-match on Scott Field with SEC and national status there for the taking. The trick for State is not grabbing for the wrong things, the ‘eye candy’, and sticking to business. Winning would be sufficiently sweet enough.