Half-way into the fall season, they are more than believers. The 1B Bulldogs are proud apostles of Mississippi State’s regular defensive rotation. Coordinator Geoff Collins and staff have given the second squad all the snaps they were promised; and in-turn these alternates have delivered results.
“Ever since spring Coach Mullen has brought that philosophy, and Coach Collins,” said safety Evans. “That we’ve got guys that can play just as good as the ones. That’s why we created the 1As and 1Bs, because our twos are just as best as the ones. It doesn’t matter who is in the game we’re going to make a play.”
Results over this undefeated-so-far season prove it. Both sets of ‘1s’ are making plays to win games. Mississippi State might not rank highly in many Southeastern Conference defense statistics as far as total yards or points or whatever. But look at a couple of categories which count. In league-only play the Bulldogs are second-best in stopping third-down conversions; and second as well in red-zone defense.
Sure, schemes and sets and scouting count in these do-or-don’t situations. So does having athletes able to respond physically under such pressures. The 1A/1B system assures there are fresh paws on the field when the other offense lines up.
”It doesn’t matter if somebody gets tired or not,” Evans said, since a rested teammate is always ready for the next snap. Or next series, or whatever. This was one obvious selling-point in spring, and you know the 1A was agreeable. The 1Bs? Well, do remember that any honest athlete wants to be a starter. So backup Bulldogs had to be shown the coaches meant what they said.
“But we practiced it and practiced it and practiced it and put it into our minds we were going to play,” said Evans. “And we did.”
Free safety Evans has found his own role in the rotation, and even started once this season (South Alabama). His 14 total tackles, eight solos with one for loss, don’t leap off the stat-sheet. By the same token he’s right in the same general range as his cohorts reflecting the, yes, rotation with Justin Cox, Kendrick Market, et.al.
Wait a moment; that’s three frees for two-team rotation. Correct. Much like the cornerback positions and defensive ends and such there are ‘1C’ Dogs available too. The opportunities to mix-and-match are obvious and Mississippi State does seize them week by week by week.
“That’s the funny thing about it,” said Evans. “Before the season started Coach Collins was talking about we’ve got somebody for this and that. But we all can play everything. It’s just that certain type of style we fit and we have different people for it.”
This is also a way of saying the Dog defense isn’t as easy to scout as most squads half-way into a season. Offenses have good ideas about the whats and wheres but cannot be as sure of the whos they’ll face on the field. Plus, and this is particularly true for the State secondary, tweaking continues.
Because for all their success in red zone settings they’d prefer opponents not get there in the first place. This will mean improving how they play in the open field and most of all against the pass, something of a sore point so far. Giving up big strikes hasn’t cost a game, not yet. Most of the deep balls have come after games were won, too.
Still no part of a ball club has more personal pride than the defensive backfield. And frankly, Evans said, the safeties and cornerbacks have been rubbed the wrong way by questions and critiques. “We had to go out and prove to everybody we can play against anybody in the country.” They’ve done just that for three solid quarters in all three league wins; now keep the intensity up in the fourth period and everyone else can relax.
Speaking of fourth quarters… Evans doesn’t need reminding of what happened or rather almost happened a year ago against Kentucky. Leading 28-19 when the period began, the Bulldogs had to first hold the Wildcats to a field goal at 8:15; and then make another stop at their own 29-yard line with half-a-minute left. The real stop though was earlier in the series, when Maxwell Smith burst through State’s defensive front with only Market between him and the goal line half-a-field away.
Market made the trip-tackle at the MSU 43 to literally save the game. “It was like wow, we made the play,” Evans said. “Coach Mullen can even tell you his heart jumped out of his chest on that one! But he made the play.”
Now Kentucky gets a return-shot on their home field. Not only is the venue different, Evans said. So is the opposition offense.
“They’re pretty good from last year, they’ve upgraded a lot and have three good running backs. Their receivers are pretty good, their quarterback (Patrick Towles) took a year off and is more advanced. So they’re pretty good.”
Then again so are the Bulldogs. So much better that they carry the nation’s top ranking to Lexington, and for the first time in 119 years a Mississippi State takes the field wearing #1 in front of the name. Fortunately for all involved these Dogs reached that ranking before an open date. Thus the potential distraction is diminished in time to defend their status.
“Well, really since the #1 polls came out it really hasn’t affected us one bit,” said Evans. “Because no matter what we’re still going to be ourselves. So the #1 ranking never bothers us one bit.”