November 11, 2013 10:11:52 AM
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen is convinced his team's defense at the end of halves is what's keeping it from a special season.
After a 51-41 loss Saturday at No. 11 Texas A&M, MSU (4-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) has given up points with two minutes or less left in the first half five times this season. With 54 seconds left in the first half, MSU sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott found freshman wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson for the first of his two touchdown catches. The scoring drive looked to give the Bulldogs momentum and cut the Aggies' lead to 16-14. However, that was plenty of time for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel to go 75 yards in four plays against a prevent defense at the end of the half. Manziel's 11-yard touchdown pass to Travis Labhart helped Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2), which is tied for second in the country in plays longer than 20 yards, take a 23-14 halftime lead. All seven of the Aggies' scoring drives took less than two minutes.
"Giving up points right before halftime was a huge momentum killer again," Mullen said Saturday. "It has probably cost us a couple of win this year."
MSU has allowed 27 points late in the first half of five games, three of which are losses, against Oklahoma State, LSU, Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Texas A&M.
"It was crushing to have that happen right before halftime," Wilson said Saturday.
The same mishap occurred in the final two minutes of a 24-20 loss at Auburn. Nick Marshall's 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining cost the Bulldogs a chance for an upset.
"We are going to have to find a way to close games," MSU junior linebacker Matthew Wells said. "Giving up scores late in the half or in the game takes a little bit out of us, but we just have to keep fighting, which we did tonight."
Auburn has gone on to win seven of its last eight games since beating MSU.
"We get a three-and-out right before halftime on defense and I don't know what our record could be," Mullen said. "We make two-minute stops and maybe we have the reversal of fortune with Auburn. Maybe we're the team that is playing Alabama this week for a Western Division title and a national championship opportunity. Who knows?"
Last season, MSU grew restless when the Bulldogs played zone coverage and allowed its cornerbacks to give receivers 10 yards of cushion to prevent big touchdowns over the top. With less than two minutes left in each half, the perception is MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has his defense playing the same prevent packages. MSU has surrendered 25 scoring drives that have taken less than two and a half minutes. Twenty-two have gone for touchdowns.
Mullen said he and his staff will study the issue to see if it's a scheme problem or a breakdown by the players.
"The only conclusion is that appears to be our Achilles' heel," Mullen said. "There's more than just this issue to our losses, but I think it's been a huge factor to us negatively."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.