A very good question indeed. Because whatever else is said about this Mississippi State unit, there is no questioning where they stand strongest. That would be in the red zone in general, and inside the five-yard line in particular.
Heck, make that the one-yard line. Three times already this SEC season the Bulldog defense has stood strongest when goal-line standing, stuffing Louisiana State, Texas A&M, and now Arkansas in full four-snap series. For the full season so-far and in the larger red zone, Mississippi State has allowed touchdowns in just nine of 28 series.
The key? Sure, schemes and scouting and all that stuff matters. But when the ball is snapped, that’s when the core to this Dog defense rises up. Ooops, makes that gets down and dirty, as tackle Jones explains.
“Yeah, what we say is we go low and then let the linebackers go over the top! That’s why it’s called the ultimate team game, you know?”
Ultimately it indeed is the tough work done down on the ground by tackles and ends. Replays of all the third- and fourth-down snaps in that trio of stands show how completely State’s interior linemen crush blocking. Enter ‘backers and safeties to find the ball, make the tackle…and get the credit. Hmmm, shouldn’t the stats be shared with the big Dogs?
“Nah, its good!” Jones laughed. “As long as we’re winning I’m fine with that.”
Good thing Jones is because physically, he’s not fine these days. Hasn’t been for most of two years in fact. The ankle injured in August 2013 hasn’t ever entirely healed and surely won’t the rest of this season. Because as long as the doctors allow, this senior will be in his interior tackle stance and eager for more contact.
“I think I’ve played OK,” Jones said. “I don’t think I’ve done as good as I wanted to. I’m beat-up, but I play through it. You’ll never be 100% playing this game. The injury from last year, I’m still feeling that. I definitely missed out on some good quality work that would have helped me this year.”
If Jones isn’t full-strength, it isn’t showing too much. He has started all season alongside fellow senior tackle Kaleb Eulls, and along with the 1A defense kept games under control. Maybe 18 total tackles in eight wins with one sack and a hurry won’t draw all-star votes. What Jones is scoring is big-time respect, from teammates, opponents, and yes scouts who understand what playing with pain involves.
“I can play tough. Our doctors are rating like the five toughest guys on the team and they had me like number one!” Jones bragged. “Dak (Prescott) is pretty tough, they had me and Dak. They know I’ve been in a lot of pain but I still go out there.”
It’s a fun debate who is ‘tougher’, quarterback Prescott ranging all around the field his own gimpy left ankle or a defensive tackle with more limited required range. What isn’t debatable is how valuable this 1A/1B defensive rotation has been for the whole front line. It gives Mississippi State a relatively fresh set of legs to line-up all game which has proven equally important in second and third quarters as in the fourth. Fortunately the Dogs have avoided overtimes but if an extra period were necessary it won’t be an exhausted defense on the field.
“The rotation really helps,” Jones agreed. Though, he has one personal complaint about alternating series. It’s nothing to do with scoring statistics or making big plays, understand. “It’s just the only thing is, as I play I get better with my performance and I get a feel for the guy across from me,” Jones said.
“Then when they (the 1Bs) go in, I kind of lose that feeling for them. The more and more you play against a guy during the course of a game you start to learn his sets and how he does his things. I never really got a feel for them Saturday, I think I lost that battle.”
The contest with Arkansas’ humungous offensive front, he means. And ‘lost’ is putting it a bit personally. Mississippi State won the war after all, allowing just one Razorback touchdown all evening and that set up by a fumbled punt. Still Jones came away with pride about as sore as his leg.
“There was a couple of times they drove me, they got me pretty good one time. But I feel I held my own.” Most notably so in mid-fourth quarter as, trailing 17-10, Arkansas had second-and-goal at the Bulldog three; and third down on the one. The next two snaps netted losses and Mississippi State made the margin hold up for the fifth SEC win of this season and seventh consecutive overall.
The interesting sub-plot to these goal-line dramas is how coordinator Geoff Collins and line coach David Turner will still go with the 1B group as a whole. But, lately they’ve also been running the two old Dogs back in at tackle(s) to shore-up the interior with sheer experience. And cool heads, too.
“Yeah, because me and Kaleb are veterans and we understand the situations,” Jones said. “Like down there in the goal line the other day, me and Kaleb knew what time it was! As long as we clog-up the middle they’re not going to score, and that’s what happened.”
What happened was another Bulldog victory, and a maintained grip on #1 in the polls as well as the College Football Playoff rankings. It’s great fun, Jones agrees, but with an obvious price. He saw, felt it at Kentucky when the homestanding Wildcats came out with fur-on-fire trying to knock off the top Dogs.
“People have built us up to #1 in the country. Now people want to break us down,” Jones said.
There can’t be many people predicting Tennessee-Martin will break down the Bulldogs this Saturday. This is a competitive club in their Ohio Valley Conference to be sure, and capable of putting up points. Other than this, Mississippi State should celebrate Homecoming 2014 the say a SEC squad is expected to. So, how can MSU coaches keep their club properly focused on the upcoming game and not looking down the road, literally, to their upcoming Alabama trip?
This is where seniority helps. Jones remembers the fun and frenzy of a 7-0 start in 2012 very well. Then came November and a frustrating 8-4 finish as well as bowl loss. So old Dogs are lecturing the pups this week about reality. “You’re only as good as your last game,” Jones said.
”A lot of people say this isn’t a big game. Coach Turner, I love this, he says lose it and find out how big of a game it will be then! It would be a big game then, wouldn’t it?” Yes, that would get coast-to-coast headlines and not the sort Mississippi State wants.
For that matter Jones applies the same attitude to his own play here in the last month of his last college regular season. It’s all about not becoming complacent, he said, or getting too tight as it seemed at Kentucky when playing the first time ever as #1.
“And I was really just trying to play to defend the #1 spot. In our uphill battle at LSU we were proving points, I was playing my best ball and felt I proved my point. Now I have to dig even deeper and find out. You know you can ball, how can you continue to ball-out even though you’ve proven you’re the best?”
Play that way, and only opponents will have reason for worry.