October 17, 2017 10:18:06 AM
STARKVILLE -- Of all defensive coordinators qualified to discuss quarterbacks that are difficult to sack, Todd Grantham has to be near the top of that list. His defenses have spent the last two seasons in practice chasing reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who has been sacked just twice in six games.
With that personal experience, he knew exactly what he was seeing in Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson.
"They really don't get sacked, a combination of protection and the quarterback's ability," Grantham said.
Johnson's mobility not only makes him a threat as a runner -- he's averaging 6.6 yards per carry and has scored twice -- but also as a top-level sack evader. There lies the challenge for MSU (4-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) and its defense as its hosts Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC) 3 p.m. Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium (SEC Network).
"He's a guy that works to be a quarterback that stays in the pocket, but if it breaks down he can buy time or he can take off and run," Grantham said. "He's a guy that we've had to account for more than other guys.
"You still try to affect him the same way, you just try to be conscious with your rush. You have to really work to try to collapse the pocket from the outside in, but you still have to find ways to effect the guy. Like last week (against BYU), the interception Brandon (Bryant) had, that was really a choice, 'Either I'm going to throw this ball right now or I'm going to get hit,' and we picked it."
Grantham outlined a system in which there are six gaps to rush -- the two in between the center and the guards, the two in between the guards and the tackles and the two outside the tackles -- and MSU's job is to condense those six as much as possible when rushing with four. Grantham believes that if the outside two of the four rushers squeeze the pocket in while the two interior rushers eat space, lanes for Johnson to escape disappear while MSU still has a full seven defenders in pass coverage.
The good news for MSU is, in the absence of injured left tackle Martinas Rankin, Greg Eiland showed signs of settling into his spot.
"I thought he did a solid job, I really do," MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. "A couple of things here and there that he needs to improve on. You can see the potential and the things he can do in practice, but expecting to see those in a live game situation is very different. He handled himself pretty well on the field and never got flustered."
The solution behind Eiland remains a mystery.
When asked what he would do if either Eiland or starting right tackle Stewart Reese were to get injured (Rankin's status for the Kentucky game remains uncertain), Mullen did not have a solidified answer to turn to. The options he granted were simply plugging Evans Wilkerson into the spot where the injury occurred; putting Harrison Moon at center to move current starting center Elgton Jenkins to the tackle spot in need; or substituting Michael Story into one of the guard positions to move either left guard Darryl Williams or right guard Deion Calhoun out to tackle.
Wildcats tough to move
Kentucky will bring to Starkville its run defense that ranks third in the SEC in allowing 97.17 yards per game; it's essentially just as good on a per-carry basis, as its 3.35 yards per carry allowed ranks fourth in the conference.
Those looking for Kentucky's formula for excellent run defense aren't going to find one; best as Mullen can tell, it's by design.
"They're very multiple: three down (linemen), four down, they bring a lot from different directions with different guys," Mullen said. "They pose some unique challenges with how multiple they are.
"Obviously a physical defense. The guys understand the scheme and what they're trying to do. They attack you from a lot of different directions and give you a lot of different looks."
Mullen sees that defense as a big part of a team he thinks should, "easily," be a top 25 team. The most recent AP Poll had Kentucky as the first team left out of the top 25 based on votes, finishing just a few votes behind No. 25 LSU.
Night game in College Station
Next week's trip to Texas A&M will be in primetime as MSU and the Aggies will kick off at 6:15 p.m. on ESPN.
MSU has yet to win in College Station since the Aggies joined the SEC, losing 51-41 there in 2013 and 30-17 in 2015.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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