November 13, 2017 11:05:39 AM
STARKVILLE -- This is the defense Dan Mullen wanted -- and he's not going to let it change just because No. 1 Alabama is chasing a game-winning touchdown.
Mississippi State's head coach took to the marketplace over the offseason looking for two things in a new defensive coordinator: stability, after one-year stints from his last three choices, and anything but stability for the offenses that face him. He wanted a defense that attacks.
With four years of offensive coordinator experience and nine more as a playcalling head coach, Mullen knows better than most what that means. The blitzes that come with attacking defensive ideologies can halt otherwise productive offensive drives with one sack; those blitzes can also create openings for explosive plays behind the defense.
On Saturday against the Crimson Tide, Mullen got both.
The same safety blitzes that held Alabama to 17 points through three quarters and gave No. 17 MSU (7-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference, No. 16 College Football Playoff) a seven-point fourth quarter lead were ultimately its undoing as Alabama came back for a 31-24 win. If MSU has to go down at all, Mullen would not have it any other way.
"We blitz a lot. I don't know if it was more or less (than usual), but (MSU defensive coordinator) Todd (Grantham), he knows what I want: to be an aggressive, attacking-style defense," Mullen said. "We're going to get after people."
As safety Mark McLaurin put it, "We're living and dying by whatever he calls."
McLaurin would know better than most; more often than not, he was the one crashing the pocket with the defense's hopes on his shoulders.
In between MSU's go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter and the fourth-quarter field goal that extended the lead, McLaurin streaked through the middle of the formation into the face of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts tried to throw over McLaurin to no avail. He finished with a game-high 11 tackles, 1.5 of them behind the line of scrimmage.
McLaurin wasn't alone: on Alabama's first possession, fellow safety J.T. Gray earned his first career sack on third down, forcing an Alabama punt that MSU turned into a touchdown six plays later.
MSU didn't merely make safeties part of the blitz: there were times where the blitzes seemed designed specifically for the safeties.
Take, for instance, a third-and-7 Alabama faced midway through the second quarter. Three linebackers -- all of them either over or left of the center -- joined three defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage. Two of those linebackers, Dez Harris and Gerri Green, were decoys, dropping into coverage at the snap; Willie Gay was not. He blitzed the middle and was followed quickly by Montez Sweat, who stunted to the inside from his spot on the right edge. That movement left the right edge open for Gray, who came streaking in from outside the box; the pressure forced an incompletion and a punt.
"That's how Coach Grantham's defense is set up: when we do blitz, somebody's going to be free," defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons said.
The drawbacks showed themselves in the fourth quarter.
Alabama's game-tying touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter first reached MSU territory on a scramble created by the blitz. MSU brought two linebackers on delayed blitzes to pressure Hurts from his left; he responded by dashing to his right for a 14-yard gain. Alabama scored six plays later -- despite one of those six plays being a sack, of course, by a MSU safety.
Alabama's fateful game-winning drive may have been delayed by a safety blitz, but it was ultimately created by another. On a third-and-15, MSU brought two safeties into the box, putting eight Bulldogs there by the time the ball was snapped; by the time Hurts released the ball, all eight of them were behind the line of scrimmage pursuing him. Hurts' pass was intended for Calvin Ridley, who ran a slant right into the area where the safeties and linebackers once stood; he took it for 31 yards and well into field goal range, not that Alabama would need to try it.
The Tide scored a touchdown on the next play.
In the aftermath, Mullen stood strong -- and he wasn't alone. McLaurin was profusely complimentary of the effort defensively and went as far as to thank every coach and player that participated. The defense did exactly what it wanted to do -- it simply didn't produce the desired result on the last possession.
The final word of the MSU defense's tagline -- fast, physical and aggressive -- isn't going away any time soon.
"We're an aggressive defense, so we came after him. That's our style. We're not going to change our style," Mullen said. "That's what we are, that's who we are and that's how we've had success."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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