Mississippi State’s Fletcher Adams, right, and Jeffery Simmons pressure Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Andre Nunez in the first half of their game Saturday night at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch
September 17, 2018 10:32:45 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State football team's defense continues to set the tone.
Through its first two games, No. 14 MSU allowed 3.48 yards per play, which meant opponents had to run 29 plays to reach 100 yards.
Louisiana-Lafayette needed only 15 plays and two possessions Saturday to reach 100 yards. But the defense's success and the offense's execution on third down -- what MSU coach Joe Moorhead calls "the money down" -- enabled it to put that early score behind it en route to a 56-10 victory at Davis Wade Stadium.
MSU (3-0), which climbed two spots in The Associated Press' latest Top 25 poll, held Louisiana-Lafayette to 4-for-13 on third down (30.7 percent) and went 8-for-11 to remain undefeated as preparations begin to face Kentucky at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) in Lexington, Kentucky.
"On top of explosive play margin and turnover margin, the two areas we're very aware of and how our execution impacts the game are third-down percentage and red zone," Moorhead said. "I think they got a couple of good reads and good throws into tight windows, some receivers getting pretty good separation from man coverage."
Offensively, MSU converted five third downs on running plays and three on passing plays. The Bulldogs averaged 13.8 yards per carry on third down and 15.8 yards per third-down pass attempt. They also averaged 26.3 yards per completion.
Some of that big-play production was a matter of necessity, as MSU's average yards to gain on third down was 7.8. Even when the big play wasn't needed -- such as a 4-for-4 showing on third downs of 1-4 yards to gain -- it remained a threat.
"We kept our poise, had a great game plan going in and executed it," quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said.
Wide receiver Keith Mixon, who caught one of Fitzgerald's three third-down completions for 23 yards, added, "His throwing's getting way better. It's like the game has slowed down. He's going to put it where you can catch it."
While MSU was keeping touchdown drives alive with third-down conversions, Louisiana-Lafayette missed all five attempts in the first half. It threw for 3 yards on third-and-9 twice, threw incomplete passes on third-and-2 and third-and-1, and ran for 1 yard on third-and-2.
Running for 2.5 yards per carry on third down was a primary reason the Ragin' Cajuns went 2-for-7 on third-and-short, which is 1-4 yards to gain.
"We knew they had some dynamic quarterbacks that can scramble and run around a little bit, especially on third down," defensive tackle Braxton Hoyett said. "The game plan was to contain the pocket, push the pocket, and try not to let them out of there."
Containing Louisiana-Lafayette's offense under new coach Billy Napier is easier said than done. MSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop noticed Napier's tendency to use exotic and myriad formations to gain leverage on the opponent, and he delivered.
It took all week to prepare for it.
"We were ready for it, for whatever they threw at us," Hoyett said. "We take different formations each day. Then when we get to Thursday practice, we call it perfect Thursday, they throw a little bit of everything at us. They went tempo and we went tempo in practice."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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