September 3, 2014 8:23:35 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State defensive end Preston Smith felt the absence of a blocker, stopped in his tracks and raised his arms before deflecting a pass from Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens. The ball fell harmlessly into Smith's arms for the Marietta, Georgia native's first career interception as the senior delivered the first statement play of the season for MSU's defense.
It would not be the last.
Smith, named the Southeastern Conference's Defensive Lineman of the Week on Monday for his performance that included two tackles, the interception, a quarterback hurry and a blocked field goal, was emblematic of a Bulldog defense that dominated from start to finish against USM. So dominant were the Bulldogs that the Golden Eagles, last seen hanging 62 on Conference USA foe UAB in the 2013 season finale, managed to cross midfield without help just once in 15 drives.
"We played well," said Smith, who spearheaded a Mississippi State defensive line that registered three sacks and allowed just 71 rushing yards. "We talked all offseason about being more explosive and making more plays. I thought we did a good job of making plays, and hopefully we are able to continue to do that as a defense."
It's that defensive line that could be key for MSU as it gets ready to host a second-straight C-USA opponent, UAB, to start the season.
According to Dan Mullen, the UAB team that arrives in Starkville for this Saturday's 1 p.m. kickoff will be far different from the team that finished 2-10 a season ago.
"I see a completely improved football team," said Mullen at his weekly press conference. "UAB looks like a very different team than they look like on film last year. You did see a team that believes in what they do. They play hard. They had two backs with over 100 yards rushing last week. They're going to try to be a physical power team and run the ball at us."
The Blazers looked revamped in a season-opening 48-10 win over Troy last Saturday. The rejuvenation comes under a first-year head coach Bill Clark, who accepted the job after one season at Jacksonville. Clark, who brought in 15 junior college transfers in his first recruiting class in Birmingham, enjoyed a dominant performance in his Blazers' debut, as UAB rushed for 339 yards and four touchdowns, marking the team's highest rushing output in 48 games.
Much of that offensive explosion was generated by sophomore tailback Jordan Howard, a native of Gardendale, Alabama. Howard, who rushed for 881 yards as a freshman, good for No. 2 in the country among freshmen, delivered 179 yards and two scores against Troy.
"I hear people talking about the top backs in the country and I think he is going to end up being one," Clark said. "He has a step, he has vision, great pass protection and he has the brains. He is one of those you don't notice because he is a quiet kid, but he is going to do great things here."
For Mullen, slowing down a UAB ground game that ran 55 times against Troy will be key for a Bulldogs' defense that allowed just 71 yards on the ground to Southern Miss.
"We have to be stout up front, but you also have to be very sound for all the play action shots and screens that are going to come off of it," said Mullen. "To fit right on defense we really have to tackle well. And even that, we have to be physical."
Being physical up front hasn't been a problem for Mississippi State's defense. The Bulldogs have allowed a 100-yard rusher just three times in their last 10 games, and have forced at least three turnovers in five of their last six.
Against UAB, the MSU defense will be tasked with slowing down a UAB ground game that features Howard and junior D.J. Vinson, who rushed for 106 yards and two scores.
"Any time a team rushes for 300-plus yards, that gets your attention said Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. "Then you turn on the film and you see that they are very physical, very well-coached."
Making an impact
Like Smith, MSU defensive end Nelson Adams was crucial to the MSU defensive line's domination of Southern Miss. A sophomore from Brandon, Adams recorded his first career sack early in the third quarter against the Golden Eagles.
"It happened so fast," said Adams. "I felt like I was going to get there, but it was a quick pass. But it felt so good."
UAB's offensive line, which Adams says "looks really good on film," did not allow a sack against Troy and kept QB Cody Clements upright un a 152-yard, two-touchdown effort.
"We just have to know our assignments and stay disciplined," said Adams. "And we have to keep making plays."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat
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