September 10, 2018 11:00:24 AM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
MANHATTAN, Kansas -- Erroll Thompson was off to a productive start, five tackles and a quarterback hurry midway through the second quarter, when he dropped into zone coverage on second-and-10. Kansas State was trying to run a slant behind him; he read it all the way, sliding to his left just enough to get in range for a diving interception.
On his fourth play on the field after that interception, he recorded a tackle for a loss. In that second-quarter sequence alone, Thompson did it all. He was far from alone on Mississippi State's defense in that regard.
In its debut, the Bulldog defense dominated Stephen F. Austin to the tune of 3.3 yards per play allowed with all kinds of pressure. No. 16 MSU was much more versatile in its second game with equal success, holding Kansas State (1-1) to 213 total yards, 3.8 per play, in the 31-10 win Saturday.
"I think it's a positive step for them," head coach Joe Moorhead said. "Certainly in this day and age in offensive football when teams are spreading the field, if you sit and play one thing you'll get picked apart. (Defensive coordinator Bob) Shoop and his staff do a good job with their players, we're mixing up fronts and mixing up coverages."
Above all else, it gives the defense multiple ways to win. It showed most of them against the Wildcats.
In the beginning, MSU was getting the job done in a way counterintuitive to its roster construction. With a defensive line as talented and deep as MSU's, the ideal formula is to win with tackles for a loss, trusting bunches of them to stall offenses. That's how it beat the Lumberjacks, with 17 of them.
It took MSU (2-0) more than a quarter to notch its first tackle for a loss against Kansas State. It used zone coverage to stop the run: since zone coverage allows defenders to keep their eyes on the backfield while they cover the pass, as opposed to eyes on their man in man-to-man coverage, it allows them to get involved in run defense when needed. It allowed safeties Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram to get the tackle on three of Kansas State's 13 first-quarter plays.
Then the behind-the-line production came. MSU kept the Wildcats at bay with three sacks -- courtesy of Thompson, Brian Cole and Montez Sweat -- that forced them to miss a lengthy field goal to end the first half.
Staying on theme, MSU did it in several ways. Cornerback blitzes came early and often; complex blitzes with safeties involved were also frequent, but MSU mixed it up with some classic four-man rushes, too.
"Really it's all about preparation," Thompson said. "I think it comes with preparation and I feel like anything Coach Shoop asks us to do, we're going to be confident in it if we prepare the right way."
Once the Bulldogs got into the backfield, it never left. They cost Kansas State 25 yards with eight tackles for a loss. Four of them came from the usual suspects, Jeffery Simmons and Sweat, in what should have been the toughest matchup. The strength of the Kansas State offense comes on the line, where All-American Dalton Risner is one of five returning starters.
"We came out with a purpose, we talked about it all week," Simmons said. "We weren't worried about all the hype with them, we wanted to play our ball game."
They did it all in adverse circumstances. They were on the road for the first time this season; they had to manage a quarterback rotation from Skylar Thompson to Alex Delton and back again; they rarely had field position in their favor, as the average Wildcat possession started on the 38-yard line compared to the 22 for MSU.
Through it all, MSU feels like it proved a point.
"It shows how many defenses we can run, how many we're good at," Simmons said. "It shows we're disciplined on defense, we do our job."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson