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Ground game has helped MSU establish identity

 

Aeris Williams makes a cut and waits for teammate Osirus Mitchell (87) to get out in front of him to make a block in the then-No. 21 Mississippi State football team’s 34-23 victory against Massachusetts on Saturday.

Aeris Williams makes a cut and waits for teammate Osirus Mitchell (87) to get out in front of him to make a block in the then-No. 21 Mississippi State football team’s 34-23 victory against Massachusetts on Saturday. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch  Buy this photo.

 

Brett Hudson

 

 

STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State football team knows what it is now. 

 

A team breaking in several junior college additions defensively and new offensive linemen, running backs and position coaches needed some time to establish an identity. MSU (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference, No. 16 College Football Playoff) will give that identity its toughest test yet 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) at Davis Wade Stadium when it hosts No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC, No. 2 CFP). 

 

Offensively, that identity has been a throwback. 

 

In a modern era in which explosive plays are valued more than they ever have been before and time of possession loses meaning by the year, MSU has taken pride in a physical approach that scores by grinding through defenses as opposed to running past them. Of MSU's 33 touchdown drives this season, 16 of them spanned at least eight plays and 10 of them featured at least 10 plays. MSU has even done it against SEC competition, with three of those 10-plus-play drives coming against conference foes. 

 

"We're just doing what the defense lets us take," MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said. "I would love to score in one play every time, but whatever they give, we take, and we're going to keep moving the ball however that is." 

 

As Mullen sees it, no one embodies that mind-set more than running back Aeris Williams. 

 

Williams is the unquestioned workhorse of the Bulldog offense, taking 163 carries this season while only one other has more than 50 and none have more than 120. Yet, he only claims two of MSU's 19 rushing touchdowns; it's a product of pounding defenses to set up scores rather than doing the scoring himself. 

 

"Aeris Williams, look at his stat line (against Texas A&M: 22 carries for 68 yards and no touchdowns)," Mullen said. "It's probably not awe-inspiring, but it's pretty impressive to take the pride in pounding, pounding and getting the tough yards that eventually allow for the big hits. He might not always be the guy getting the big hit, but he's doing that." 

 

That identity has come at the cost of explosive plays. 

 

MSU is ranked tied for 109th in the nation in plays of 20 yards or more (33) and tied for 95th in plays of 30 yards or more (15). More advanced numbers are equally unkind to MSU: Bill Connelly's IsoPPP metric, a measure of how explosive a team is but only when the given play is successful relative to down and distance to go, ranked MSU 119th in the nation. 

 

"We're always looking for explosives, some games we have more than others," Mullen said. "We had some chances for explosives on Saturday but you have to execute those." 

 

Fitzgerald is convinced explosive plays can come even in an offense that seems to enjoy not relying on them. 

 

"It's recognizing the looks you can have to create an explosive play and capitalizing on that. It's been there, we've just been off a little bit," he said. 

 

In describing the defensive identity, Mullen quickly went to the motto installed by new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham upon his arrival: fast, physical and aggressive. That's been a common theme among Grantham's prior defenses, but numbers suggest his first MSU defense is doing so in a different way -- a MSU way. 

 

In the past, Grantham's defenses have relied heavily on excellent linebacker play. Connelly's Havoc Rate -- the percentage of plays in which a defense records a pass defensed, fumble forced or tackle for a loss -- ranked the linebackers on Grantham's last two Louisville defenses third and eighth nationally, respectively, among linebacker units. Before that, Grantham coached standout Georgia linebackers including Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones. 

 

Now he's getting it done with defensive linemen. 

 

Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons is one of the team's best in both tackles for a loss (7) and sacks (3.5). He is only bested in both categories by Montez Sweat (9 and 6.5), who may be listed as an outside linebacker but spends just as much time with a hand in the ground in a defensive lineman's stance -- Sweat has even been named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week twice. 

 

"The game is won up front, so that's where it's going to start and that's where it's going to end," Sweat said. 

 

Therein lies the MSU way -- one it doesn't plan on changing against an opponent that has won several national championships on the same principles. 

 

"This is what you come to the SEC to do: play in these kinds of games," Mullen said.  

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson

 

 

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