Mississippi State’s J.T. Gray forces a fumble as teammate Dez Harris (11) looks on from the ground at the feet of the Charleston Southern player in their game Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch Buy this photo.
September 3, 2017 12:44:45 AM
STARKVILLE -- The film on the Charleston Southern football team made the job of the Mississippi State defensive line simple.
"With them being not so big and not as physical as us, our job was to come into the game and knock them off the ball," MSU sophomore defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said. "If we get penetration in the backfield, we'll win the game."
MSU earned plenty of penetration. In the process, the Bulldogs held the Buccaneers to 0.7 yards per play -- breaking a school record that was set in 1963 -- thanks in part to a breakout performance by the defensive line in a 49-0 win in the season opener for both teams Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
Simmons, a former standout at Noxubee County High School in Macon, played a big role with five tackles and his first career sack.
"We knew coming into this game they couldn't really block us," Simmons said. "That showed, especially for Cory Thomas. We're going to watch film, but I think we lived up to that standard. We're raising the standard back to the Mississippi State identity."
As Simmons said, he had plenty of help. Thomas had four tackles and forced a fumble; Kobe Jones, who was playing his first collegiate game, had five tackles and one-and-a-half tackles for a loss; Montez Sweat made his debut with three tackles; Fletcher Adams forced fumble and had one-and-a-half tackles for a loss. The combined effort wasn't a surprise because that unit has been a collective since last season ended.
Simmons detailed a defensive line group, and team as a whole, that has come together and is tighter than last year's squad. Simmons said he tells Thomas often, "I need you." He recalled a conversation from Friday night with his hotel roommate, Adams, about staying focused. It has changed how the unit plays.
"I'm playing for my guys. I'm going to play every snap with relentless effort," Simmons said.
MSU's new attitude overwhelmed Charleston Southern. A year ago, the Buccaneers were one of the Football Championship Subdivision's most potent offenses. Against the Bulldogs, the Buccaneers had negative yardage with four minutes remaining in the first half. Charleston Southern nearly ended the game with negative yardage before a 19-yard possession in the final minutes bumped the total to 33. The Buccaneers had only two first downs.
The defense also produced two safeties. Todd Grantham, who is in his first year as MSU's defensive coordinator, said he couldn't remember having a defense do that. It was MSU's first time accomplishing that feat since 2000.
"We attacked guys. We understood the blocking concepts we were going to see," Grantham said, adding he saw a line, "playing with leverage and taking away the dive."
It's what MSU needed to do against a Charleston Southern team with a triple option-based attack. To prepare, Grantham put the Bulldogs through a tougher week of practice.
"Anytime you practice for an option team, your practice has to be really live," Grantham said. "The credit goes to the players and what they've done."
Practice for Charleston Southern was different in that MSU used the ball a lot less. Grantham, as others do, bases his option defense around rigid assignments, delegating ball carriers to defenders and taking away other responsibilities. He said using a ball in practice can distract defenders from that assignment, so there were times he ran drills without the ball and forced his players to do only their jobs.
The preparation paid off with an effort that didn't disappoint.
"That's the type of defense I expect," MSU coach Dan Mullen said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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