STARKVILLE — The Mississippi State football team has allowed fives sacks in three games, but linemen and coaches agree there”s plenty to fix before Saturday.
MSU will play host to Georgia at 6 p.m. Saturday (Fox Sports Net) and will face its first 3-4 defense of the season. Georgia”s defense, however, isn”t the most troubling aspect of preparing this week. MSU”s communication issues have been at the root of its lackluster play in its first two Southeastern Conference games.
MSU offensive line coach John Hevesy says his unit”s play has caused “frustration” considering the experience and success from last season. MSU”s offense has more interceptions than touchdown passes and has scored just 21 points in its past two games.
“Each individual knows what they got to do, now they got to do it together,” Hevesy said. “You never see five guys make a mistake, it”s one of five. It”s one of 11. Whether it”s offense, defense or special teams. That can”t happen.”
The momentary breakdowns on the offensive line hit a tipping point last week at LSU when MSU had its worst offensive performance of the season. MSU scored just once, threw five interceptions, and was held to less than 270 total yards of offense. The ball-control approach that led to MSU leading the league in time of possession last season has given way to a more balanced attack. But as the Bulldogs attempt more passes — 12 more after three games than last season– and make a concerted effort to balance the offense there”s greater opportunities for defenses to dial up pressure.
And with redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Russell and starter Chris Relf, who have a combined 119 career pass attempts, splitting time this season, opposing defenses have had an advantage in disguising blitzes and creating confusion.
Senior center J.C. Brignone said both quarterbacks are making the correct checks at the line of scrimmage, though some of the responsibility falls on his shoulders. Brignone said trust is the key to making the correct protection checks.
“I know Relf has a lot of confidence in me to be able to let me make calls,” Relf said. “I think Tyler”s starting to fit into that. I think he”s starting to understand. It does help if he sees something because I can only see seven people in the box. He sees outside, and if he comes up and sees something to change then he can come up and change it. I”m not the quarterback. I”m the quarterback of the offensive line.”
The trust between the quarterbacks and the offensive line goes beyond making protection checks, guard Quentin Saulsberry said. The comfort of sitting in the pocket to deliver accurate passes decreases when defensive pressure increases, which places greater emphasis on the offensive line holding blocks longer.
“We took personal responsibility for that (LSU loss) because that was on our half,” Saulsberry said. “All the picks and everything, it”s on the O-line”s back. We have to step up to the plate. Coach Hevesy always tells us sometimes with a turnover it”s not the quarterback, it”s not because the receiver ran the wrong route. It”s probably because he kept getting hit or whatever and now he doesn”t trust you.”
Despite the returning talent from last year, redshirt freshman Gabe Jackson and redshirt sophomore Tobias Smith, who are rotating at both guard spots, are still inexperienced. Saulsberry, who had his share of growing pains following a stint at right tackle and a move back to guard, admits Jackson and Smith are still learning the nuances of the position. Their situation doesn”t make them any different as everyone learns something new each day. But if they”re struggling, teammates aren”t doing enough to help them along, Saulsberry said.
“We all give each other criticism on what we did or what we have to do,” he said. “I don”t see anybody hitting a wall because when you have young guys climbing that hit a wall, it”s just because the guys around him are not helping him. As long as we help each other, we”ll be all right.”
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