Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill looks for running room. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch
November 11, 2018 1:06:34 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Mississippi State was already down its starting nickel defensive back, Brian Cole, and entered the week wondering if it would have his replacement, Jaquarius Landrews. Coach Joe Moorhead said MSU had contingency plans: he pointed out Wednesday both C.J. Morgan and Chris Rayford are trained to play the Star position if needed.
No. 18 MSU went with a completely different plan.
The Bulldogs moved full-time safety Johnathan Abram to Star and plugged Morgan into Abram's spot. The preexisting option at Star, freshman Marcus Murphy, still got some reps, but the shuffling meant a lot more playing time for Morgan in MSU's 24-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama.
"The biggest thing was we didn't want to throw Marcus in there as a starter with his level of experience. John's done it all, played a lot of positions and has a high level of football IQ, so it was an easy transition there," Moorhead said. "Marcus played in some of our Dime packages. A combination of John and Chris Rayford rolled through there as well. I thought those guys did a good job of adjusting."
Abram performed well in the change of scenery, tallying nine tackles, one for a loss, and two quarterback hurries. Morgan had four tackles.
"I'm very proud of those guys, next man up mentality," defensive end Gerri Green said. "I feel like we just kept rolling as a defense."
Leo Lewis absent
Moorhead said linebacker Leo Lewis did not make the trip with the team due to illness. Lewis started every game before this one, tallying 37 tackles, three for a loss. He was the team's fifth-leading tackler.
Starkville native Willie Gay had the best game of his career in Lewis' absence: nine tackles, two sacks and an interception.
Day's strong day
The beleaguered sophomore season of Tucker Day had just one 50-plus yard punt entering Saturday. His first of eight punts against Alabama went for 51 yards.
He entered Saturday with a season average of 38.3 yards per punt, then booted his first four for 51, 43, 47 and 41 yards. His average for the game ultimately slipped to 36.8, but Moorhead had an explanation for that. He still considered it a solid performance.
"He boomed a few today, he also did some sky kicks to create more hangtime to cover," Moorhead said. "The big thing with him is we know he can do it."
The Bulldogs did everything they could to make Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa test his injured knee. Tagovailoa ultimately threw for 164 yards and a touchdown while completing two-thirds of his passes, but did so through four sacks and three hurries.
"We're just playing our game. We know he's tough, we know he's elusive," Green said. "You have to get your hands on him. I think a couple of times on those sacks he made the first guy miss. We had to have the effort to get there and bring him down."
Twice, on pivotal plays, MSU had a premature snap play a significant role in thwarting a drive.
Early in the second quarter, on third-and-3, an early snap forced a punt; it happened again late in the third quarter, on first-and-10. It set up a second-and-14 and a third-and-7 that MSU could not overcome; the Bulldogs ultimately failed on fourth-and-6.
"One, it was loud, two, we worked on it all week again," Moorhead said. "I don't want to say (center) Elgton (Jenkins) was jumpy, but he said he heard something that sounded like a clap and he snapped it. You can't be behind the sticks against these guys."
Fitzgerald added, "We have to get that fixed, we have to figure out what we can do. We've struggled with the clap cadence all year, it's something that's given us trouble. We have to figure out a fix for that."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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