Willie Gay Jr.
November 12, 2018 10:15:14 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Before Saturday, Mississippi State's defense started every game with a shot of energy waiting on the sidelines, to be unleashed at an unknown time.
Against No. 1 Alabama, that boost -- Willie Gay Jr. -- was on the field for the first snap, and nearly every snap after it.
Through the first nine games of his sophomore season, the Starkville native was a player of critical importance on MSU's defense, but not the starter: that honor belonged to Leo Lewis. Lewis missed the Alabama game with an illness, so Gay took an increased workload and responded with the best game of his career: nine tackles, two sacks and his first career interception. Gay was the bright spot in Saturday's 24-0 loss to the top-ranked Crimson Tide.
"He and Leo have been splitting reps basically down the middle for quite a time," MSU coach Joe Moorhead said. "Very athletic guy, makes a lot of plays in the run game and also makes plays in the pass game, getting in his drops and covering the entire width of the field."
The plays Gay was making require the energy he has become known for.
It takes energy to sack Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa twice, given Alabama had allowed all of six sacks before MSU came to town. It takes energy to do something that only one man had done before Saturday -- intercept Tagovailoa.
It takes energy to do those things on consecutive plays, and that's exactly what Gay did.
"We know that's Willie Gay. He brings that energy even at times when he's playing but he's not starting," senior defensive end Gerri Green said.
Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons added, "That's Willie. Willie flies around to the ball, he's always around the ball. That's Willie and the dog mentality in him. We had a lot of confidence in Willie tonight."
Alabama's first possession of the second half was faced with a second-and-9 near the left hashmark; Gay was lined up to the boundary, presenting an outside blitz look. Defensive tackle Braxton Hoyett slanted his rush into the tackle, giving Gay a free path to Tagovailoa.
On the next play, Gay was lined up for another blitz, this one up the middle, just to back off at the snap. Under pressure, Tagovailoa threw short and over the middle -- right where Gay dropped to at the snap.
In the moment, Gay knew what he had done.
"He threw it right to me, actually," Gay said. "I didn't know what to do when I caught it, I was kind of surprised.
"When I caught it, I was like, 'Yeah, gave him his second one.'"
Doing it all against the No. 1 team is a big moment, but one Gay had ample time to prepare for. He said he had a good feeling he would be thrown into this role but knew it almost for certain by Wednesday. Plus, Gay has seen plenty of big-time football in his first two years as a Bulldog: just this year he is MSU's sixth-leading tackler with 37, 3.5 for a loss.
Expecting a breakout performance of this level may have been a step too far, but the expectation coming from his teammates wasn't too far from it.
"Coming in, he played his heart out. He made a lot of plays," Simmons said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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