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MSU defense faces different challenge vs. Louisiana Tech

 

Brett Hudson

 

 

STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State defended just eight pass attempts in its season opening win over Charleston Southern; meanwhile, just a few hours southwest in Ruston, Louisiana, Louisiana Tech threw the ball 10 times...in the first quarter. 

 

The reality for the MSU defense this week is what MSU coach Dan Mullen described as, "total opposite ends of the spectrum." The pass-based offense of Louisiana Tech (1-0) will present MSU (1-0) and its defensive backs with its first such challenge Saturday at 6 p.m. on CBS Sports Network in Ruston. 

 

"I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time reviewing the film from last week because there's not a lot of carryover to the scheme we're going to see," Mullen said. 

 

The man slinging the ball at the MSU defense will be a familiar face to Mullen: he remembers Louisiana Tech quarterback J'Mar Smith from his high school days at Meridian High School, where he was a standout in both football and baseball. Smith got his first action as the established starter in last week's 52-24 win over Northwestern State, but it was not the first start of his career: Smith started the 2016 season opener, a one-point loss at Arkansas, in lieu of Ryan Higgins who did not play after a preseason DWI arrest. 

 

Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Todd Fitch told The Dispatch including the start, Smith played about 100 snaps last season. The progress Smith has made since then has been obvious. 

 

"He has a better command of (the offense): against Arkansas we didn't carry everything in," Fitch told The Dispatch. "Physically he's always been a mature, very talented young man, but overall it's been more football knowledge and more ready to run the whole show." 

 

Smith taking over for Higgins after a two-year experiment with graduate transfer quarterbacks -- Cody Sokol from Iowa and Jeff Driskell from Florida -- was part of the curiosity for the 2017 Louisiana Tech offense's ability to live to its standard. That standard is high: in yards per play against FBS competition, Louisiana Tech ranked third in the nation (7.45) last year and 14th (6.70) the year before. Those two seasons were no aberration, given the Bulldogs were top 50 in 2014 and 11th in 2012 in the same measurement. 

 

Another part of that line of questioning came from the wide receiver position, after Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson both went on to the NFL. Taylor and Henderson were both in the top seven nationally in receiving yards last season, Taylor at 128.8 and Henderson and 118.1, and combined for 31 touchdowns. Mullen squashed any concern about that unit. 

 

"They were one of the top offenses in the country last year and rotated guys through," Mullen said. "They have explosive playmakers, they have some great athletes and you can see, not just within the offense but in the return game. We're going to have to run to the ball and tackle real well in open spaces." 

 

Louisiana Tech has a new man in the fold on top of the returners: Teddy Veal, who is playing his first season in Ruston after transferring from Tulane. Veal led the team's wide receivers with three catches in his debut, showing off what Fitch had been waiting for throughout Veal's year of sitting out due to transfer rules. 

 

"If you had a draft on our team he would probably be one of the top one, two or three players taken," Fitch said. "Really strong hands, understands the game very well. He loves to prepare for the game and he has the talent to go with it." 

 

All of that being the case, Veal was not Louisiana Tech's leading receiver from last week. That honor belonged to running back Boston Scott, who is part of a redesign of the running back position in Ruston. 

 

In the face of all of MSU's emphasis on his aerial attack, Fitch was quick to point out that Louisiana Tech is no stranger to the 1,000-yard rusher: Jarred Craft did it last year and is back this season. Craft followed in the footsteps of Kenneth Dixon, who also hit the threshold on his way to threatening for the all-time career touchdowns record before being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. 

 

Craft, Scott and Jaqwis Dancy -- back to the field after beating cancer last year -- give Louisiana Tech a running back corps that has Fitch thinking, "we'll certainly run the ball a little more consistently than we did last year." 

 

He stopped short of saying that meant closer to a 50-50 run-pass balance. For example, in a game Louisiana Tech won by 28 points, the Bulldogs still threw only two fewer times than it ran and amassed 55 more yards through the air. 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson

 

 

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