“I think they saw if we just start the game the way we finished that we can take some positives out of it,” coordinator Diaz said.
No doubt, the Dogs did not start well against LSU. Or not well enough. As Diaz pointed out, their first series was a three-and-out just as at Southern Mississippi. And just as a week before, it was negated on third down penalty. Where USM didn’t use the break to drive for points, the Tigers did.
What Diaz really meant by slow start though wasn’t the statistical result. Against all expectations built in spring and preseason, Mississippi State’s defense has shown troubling tentative tendencies to begin games. Especially last Saturday in a top-25 matchup, on the home field.
“We were waiting for somebody to make a play. There’s a couple of balls they pushed down the field, we had a guy right there and sort of stopped instead of playing through and breaking the pass up or making an interception.”
And talk about un-even, Diaz said after falling behind two touchdowns the defense “panicked” for a stretch. “Then we were pressing to make a play. That’s where we saw guys hopping in and out of each other’s gaps, our tackling deteriorated, we lost trust of leverage and our teammates. Quite honestly we were fortunate it was only 14 at that point.”
But, here comes the swing that has Diaz and the Dogs encouraged. Disappointed yes, but encouraged. Much as Coach Dan Mullen said Saturday evening, it wasn’t any schematic shifts which got things settled down and turned in the home team’s direction.
“It just seemed we settled down. We took a deep breath, realized we could play. And from that point on we played a pretty clean game save for the one drive in the second half. I really felt the guys saw when we just played, and everybody made the play that came to them and didn’t worry, they played pretty well.”
Not well enough to come all the way back, though that wasn’t decided until a long kick to win it went wide. But enough that everyone can see what was wrong, what went right, and where to take it all from here.
State stays home this weekend, and hosts a non-conference opponent from a lower division in Northwestern (La.) State. The Demons don’t bring good memories for Diaz. Last year his Louisiana Tech team, coming off two big wins, wasn’t emotionally prepared the right way for Northwestern State and took an upset loss. Diaz saw guys trying to put on a show while the Demons plugged away.
Plus, five Tech turnovers and two kicking game mistakes gave their old rivals from long-ago days a chance to score the upset. Diaz can use his own experience at another program to alert his current Bulldogs not to take the Demons lightly or go through any motions.
“I know they’re a well-coached team. I know they have an offensive line coach’s mentality on offense,” Diaz said. “Going forward you still know some of their personnel and some of the things you want to do.”
What Mullen and staff really want to do is get this one under early control and start shuttling in twos, threes, even some freshmen if practical. That might limit middle linebacker Richie Brown’s chances to extend his streak of double-digit tackles of course, with 22 stops in two games.
Junior Brown certainly has raised his game now as a starter. Then again Diaz said with all the snaps—or “at bats” as he called it—mike ‘backer Brown and will LB Beniquez Brown ought to be piling up the tackle stats.
“Schematically we’re trying to be more active at linebacker and having to get those guys involved in more hits.”
At the same time Diaz commented on a clutch fourth-quarter series where the starting three were gassed during a LSU drive. The next trio of linebackers were inserted and ended the series. MLB Gerri Green forced the ball in a direction where OLB DeAndre Ward made consecutive tackles. That and the work of J.T. Gray on the other out-side show the depth necessary for a long season.
So, what about getting younger, newer linebackers into this week’s action? Or more snaps for backup tackles, ends, defensive backs, everyone? Yes, Diaz said, for the defense to develop as needed these Dogs must get real snaps.
But…this isn’t charity either. Diaz is blunt about the dangers of letting guys play just to play. “A lot of those guys don’t know anything but 10-3, so they assume hey, I redshirted last year, it was fun, College Gameday. And now it’s my turn. No, no, no.”
“Just the idea I walk in and it’s time for me, if we lower our standard that’s going to hurt us. There’s a balance. They’ve got to play, but they’ve got to earn it as well.”
Saturday will show which Bulldog have earned admission onto Scott Field for-real. It will also show how the defensive staff is building on the better half of last week’s loss. Diaz knows what matters most at this September point.
“It’s that word trust. You have to trust your technique, you have to trust your teaching. But the main thing, you’ve got to trust your teammates.”