Brown, Dog D Love To See Red (Zone)

What’s the hoary saying about great hitters? That if you get a strike on him you have a problem, and if you have two strikes on him you’re in real trouble? They play on an entirely different field yet opponents might feel the same these days when they do reach the red zone. That’s where real trouble comes from this Bulldog defense.

Just ask Beniquez Brown. “We really just lock-in. Coach tells us wherever they are, just make sure they don’t score. So our mindset really changes.”

So do results. Half-way through the 2014 schedule, the Mississippi State defense has met opposing offenses inside the 20-yard line 19 times. Only six such trips have resulted in touchdowns, and the overall red zone defense rate of under 58% is best in the Southeastern Conference. And, #2 nationally this week.

Which is one among many reasons why the Bulldogs as a whole are #1 in the national rankings. The offense is running at an all-time pace providing almost 42 points a week. But in today’s game even lots of points is no assurance of success. As Coach Dan Mullen said, the key to winning remains reliable defense.

Here is a unit more than doing its job. Especially in that fascinating red zone region where everyone is supposed to score. These Dogs beg to differ.

“We say we can bend but don’t break,” said outside linebacker Brown. “So the closer they get we try as hard as we can not to let them in the end zone. We hit another gear and try to hold them out, make them kick a field goal. And we try to block it!”

Which by the way they also have done, twice in fact. That special stat isn’t provided by just special teams because down close to the goal the regular Dog defense stays on the field…just in case there’s any foolishness y’see. Which makes what this unit does that much more, well, special.

Or as Brown said, “We get in another mode.”

Brown himself is performing in a whole ‘nother mode. He was a solid player as a redshirt freshman to be sure, with 39 tackles and 4.5 stops for losses working in rotation duty. Now Brown is a starter, and what a start he’s had to this soph season. Brown is averaging 6.0 tackles so far with 5.0 for losses (more than last season already) and 1.5 sacks. Only middle ‘backer Benquez Brown is ahead with 41 and 3.0.

Now 30 tackles in six games is good yet hardly league-leading. Ahhh, but this only emphasize something really special about State’s defensive approach. Some teams talk rotation, the Bulldogs do it practically series-by-series. Coordinator Geoff Collins will start a new series with the 1B (don’t call them second team) unit regardless of field position, including yes deep in the red zone if necessary.

The results are inarguable. Nor will the 1A guys argue that they’re being deprived of individual statistics from sharing series. Just the opposite.

“It’s fun. It’s exciting,” Brown said. “We don’t get mad if Coach takes us out and puts the other guys in. We accept that. We’ll watch what they (the 1Bs) do and help them from our sideline, screaming out if we see something they may not see. So it’s just a bond of brothers helping each other out. We have a great relationship, we all talk, we all hang out. It’s exciting being around those guys.”

Brown himself is a mighty exciting young Bulldog ‘backer. No better proof is provided than the fact Collins has given the soph as big a share in on-field play calling as veteran and all-star junior McKinney has. McKinney even concedes that the younger cohort has a knack for seeing stuff and making immediate adjustments beyond his college years.

The secret, Brown said, is in detailed study. But not of the overall offensive picture. Just the opposite, oddly.

“If you see a lot you’re going to see too much. You see small, you see enough.”

Again, odd…but as Brown explained ‘small’ isn’t as little a deal as it sounds. It’s more a matter of finding tendencies, tips, tricks teams try. How far is the running back from his quarterback? What sort of stance does the tackle take in particular plays? Are the blockers ‘light’ or ‘tight’, do they put more weight on heels in anticipation of blitzes?

Sure there is always an element of deception involved. But study long and close enough and the true trends emerge. “It’s small details. Those small things are what count. If you look at the big picture you might see too much. Coach Collins gave us a quote K.J. Wright (former Dog outside linebacker with the world champs Seattle) gave him: ‘see a lot, you’re seeing too much. See small and see just enough’.”

There’s more to winning than one Dog’s advance study. Brown has to trust his teammates and they are delivering, allowing him to make what only looks like a great individual play. Take last Saturday when Auburn was (yes) in the red zone with 3rd-and-goal from the five-yard line. The Tigers tried trickery, a reverse-sweep with tight end C.J. Uzomah going to the right and looking to throw.

Coverage held up but the big Uzomah also had a nearly-clear path to the goal line himself. Nearly clear because Brown had held his ground and was able to charge in for the ankle-tackle flipping the 6-5, 260-pounder entirely over. “Yeah, anything to get him down!” Brown grinned.

The larger point though was Brown hadn’t gone haring after the sweep trying to force a big play on his own. “I just trusted my guys. That’s how I try to learn, by knowing where everybody else is on the field. So with their reverse I knew I had somebody outside of me. Its’ just believing in what we do and if you get a chance take your shot, make your play. That’s just putting trust in your teammates, that they’re going to make the play if you don’t.”

This weekend Brown and Bulldogs are enjoying their second and last open-date. Coming after consecutive home wins over top-ten opponents, the break couldn’t be better-timed to let everyone unwind. If they can. Because making the fastest poll-climb in history, from unranked to #1 in barely a month, has taken some sort of emotional toll too.

Brown’s intent is unwinding at his Florence, Ala., home. Sort-of.

But, “At the same time I might leave it for a little while and get my iPad and watch film. It’s all focus about this team and winning.”

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