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Defense returns to form against Kentucky

 

Mississippi State's Jeffery Simmons and J.T. Gray combine to make a tackle Saturday against Kentucky.

Mississippi State's Jeffery Simmons and J.T. Gray combine to make a tackle Saturday against Kentucky. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch  Buy this photo.

 

Slim Smith

 

 

Late on the evening of Sept. 30, the Mississippi State football team's defense slithered off the field, after allowing 80 points and more than 900 yards in trips to Georgia and Auburn. 

 

When MSU went east, its defense, which had seemed so impregnable, went south. 

 

About the only thing the MSU defenders brought home from the trips was a bunch of bruised egos and an identity crisis. 

 

MSU licked its wounds, metaphorically, during an open date, then smacked around a bad BYU team last week. 

 

But some doubts lingered, at least in the minds of Bulldog fans. 

 

On Saturday, MSU's defense did an awful lot to dispel those worries. 

 

MSU's defense, which battered its first three opponents, is back to form, after a 45-7 victory against Kentucky on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. 

 

The game was as close to a real test of how far MSU's defense has come since the Georgia/Auburn meltdown. By all measures, the Wildcats are respectable on offense, so the performance can't be dismissed as beating up on the little kid next door. 

 

MSU held Kentucky to one score, which briefly tied the game at 7 midway though the second quarter. It then smothered Kentucky in the second half. MSU held Kentucky 90 yards below its per-game average and 20 points below its scoring average and had two interceptions, including MSU's first return for a touchdown this season. There was even a "Fat Guy" interception, with 304-pound tackle Braxton Hoyett tipping and intercepting a pass on a screen play late in the third quarter, a turnover that essentially sealed the win after the Bulldogs scored to take a 31-7 the final period. 

 

In its last two games, MSU has allowed 17 points and 436 yards and has made four interceptions. 

 

That's a far cry from September. 

 

It would be a good story to suggest that when MSU returned from Auburn, its defense went through some profound soul-searching, the coaching staff made some lineup changes, or it implemented a new scheme. 

 

Sorry to disappoint. 

 

"We just played harder," MSU senior linebacker Dez Harris said. "We just decided that what we did (at Georgia and Auburn) wasn't our standard." 

 

Hoyett, pressed into the starting lineup four games ago in the absence of starter Corey Thomas, said the open date allowed the defense to regain its focus. 

 

"We just had to come out with the mentality that we had to get better every day," he said. "I think that's what we've done, too." 

 

The defense was victimized by one big play after another in the mini-meltdown. MSU coach Dan Mullen insisted it wasn't a matter of effort or ability, but mental lapses and, perhaps, and indication the Bulldogs were still learning first-year coordinator Todd Grantham's aggressive defense. 

 

The difference was notable. Kentucky had two plays of 20 yards or more, mainly because MSU's defense was in position to make a play and executed in those situations. 

 

"There were some times (Kentucky) took some shots downfield and we won the 50-50 balls," Mullen said. "That's a big deal in a game. To win those 50-50 balls and make those plays is big. Even the Willie Gay's play right before halftime on third-and-1 when they took a shot down the field was big. It really changed the game and gave us momentum to go down and score." 

 

At halftime, Mullen challenged his defense to turn up the heat on quarterback Stephen Johnson. 

 

The defense heeded the wishes of their coach. 

 

Johnson was sacked twice, threw two interceptions, and completed 3 of 8 passes for 35 yards before being pulled in the fourth quarter. 

 

It's reasonable to say that if MSU isn't "back" to where it was before its last road trip, it is awfully close as it prepares for its next game Saturday at Texas A&M. 

 

The defense that packs its bags next week will be better than the last one that went on the road, Mullen insists. 

 

"We're not making those mental errors," he said. "The attention to detail at practice is better and the coaches are putting them in great situations. Guys are learning the defense and playing more confident every single week." 

 

Harris put is simply. 

 

"We're back to playing to our standard," he said. 

 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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