“It’s partly about getting ready for LSU. And it’s partly about getting better being us. And our guys have a good attitude.”
An attitude rising from Mississippi State’s successful debut at Southern Mississippi. But without meaning offence to the Golden Eagle offense, this home game brings an entirely new level of challenge. Diaz has only a handful of snaps from LSU’s aborted opener to study.
This does not obscure what playing LSU involves on defense. First, “It’s all hands on deck to stop the run.” As in get a grip on all-world soph Leonard Fournette, already on every watch-list in year-two.
“Then they’ve got outstanding wide receivers,” Diaz said. “And forever and ever no matter who’s the quarterback they’re going to push the ball down the field. So you have to do some things coverage-wise. Then all of a sudden you’re in a situation where no one covers the quarterback.”
Which is fatal in this case. Brandon Harris has to be accounted for every snap. “Insanely talented,” Diaz called him. “He can make any throw, throws an obviously outstanding deep ball. But the thing that’s a really frightening about him is his ability to improvise and his ability to run.”
Mississippi State did stop the run last week at Hattiesburg. USM did throw the ball a lot and caught enough passes to keep things interested. Though, “the throws of 10 yards we were tackling, and I like that,” Diaz said.
He also noted only three plays went for 20 or more yards and one was a true gadget job. Another came after some tackles were missed.
Not that the opener went exactly how Diaz scripted anything. A combination of MSU errors and home team ingenuity gave the Bulldog defense much more testing than anyone envisioned. “I’ve never seen a first quarter like that, there were so many self-inflicted wounds,” Diaz said.
Such as a Dog lining up off-sides to spoil a three-and-out of USM on the opening series. A straight-up offensive fumble that kept State from leading 7-0 immediately, then a trifecta of major kicking game gaffes, left the Dog defense on the field an absurd total of first-quarter and first-half minutes.
And before halftime they found themselves having to stuff Southern on four-straight dive plays inside the three-yard line, including a 4th-and-short.
“What’s more amazing about that, it may have been our 44th play of the game and ten minutes left in the second quarter!” As anxious as the opening half played-out though, Diaz came away encouraged he has a resilient roster.
“For us to find the backbone to hold him out from 12 inches away, that says a lot about the character of your kids. That certainly makes it easy to coach defense.”
Questions about coverage with 311 air yards allowed are natural, but the implications are rubbing the coordinator the wrong way. Diaz did clear up a few miss-impressions in his mind.
“I think our secondary did a lot of good things in the first game,” he said. “Mistakes aren’t all on the secondary, every pass play is not the secondary’s fault.” Such as one play Diaz saw when linebacker Richie Brown was in the grasp of a lineman farther downfield than passing plays are supposed to allow.
“It’s easy to pile on the secondary kids, but we’re trying to escape that narrative.”
The backfield was without senior cornerback Taveze Calhoun, held out a week to protect an August knee situation. Coach Dan Mullen pronounced Calhoun available for LSU, and Diaz would welcome him back if so.
“His physical skill set, his length, his speed, his ability to get hands on wide receivers. Then there’s just his experience, his demeanor. He’s just one of those guys that is feisty and everybody on our team kind of follows his lead.”
Diaz’ biggest disappointment last week was not getting more backups and new defenders in the game. And that, as things developed through the tense first half, even alternates were limited in snaps. The positive is the front-liners have been seasoned successfully.
“Now what we’re hoping is every week a different guy ‘pops’ and can improve his role, so a guy go from eight plays to 15 and another guy go from 15 to 22. That’s when we start to expand our depth.”
Something else Diaz wants to expand this week: tackles for losses. "There still weren't enough plays made behind the line of scrimmage. we're still getting that idea of attacking the line of scrimmage and getting our feet across the line.
"Now the challenge is differnt this week, and you can't be a good defense by doing a lot of good things except that one play. Defense is defined by that one or two plays."
Plays which can define a SEC West showdown, in fact.