STARKVILLE — When Manny Diaz took over as co-defensive coordinator of the Mississippi State football team, his goal was to get his players to fly to the football without hesitation.
Diaz”s “Go” defense is one where players diagnose and react quickly to create backfield pressure.
In MSU”s 24-12 win against the University of Georgia on Saturday, Diaz said it was the first time his players had the chance to truly operate with that mind-set. MSU”s first two Southeastern Conference opponents, Auburn and LSU, required the defense to respect the option, but against Georgia, a traditional base running team, MSU flashed the defensive pressure Diaz has promised.
But even as the Bulldogs have adjusted to Diaz”s scheme, their will to keep opponents out the end zone has helped them remain resilient. MSU has allowed the second fewest number of touchdowns in the red zone in the SEC (three). It also has the fourth-least number of defensive red zone chances (10).
“I don”t know if it was always appealing to the eye ball, but it was a game where you kept throwing the body blow and we were able to win it at the end,” Diaz said Monday during MSU”s weekly media conference. “We have a bunch of guys that don”t like it when people get in our end zone, and we make ourselves hard to score on. That has a lot to do with the character of kids we play with.”
MSU is sixth in the SEC in total defense (309 yards) and has held two of the three SEC opponents it has faced to less than 17 points.
Still, the Bulldogs are far from being dominant, Diaz said.
“There were a couple of plays where we”re still not going,” Diaz said. “There was a scramble that (UGA quarterback Aaron) Murray had in the second half where it was a third down, they ran a fullback in the flat, and they had it all covered. And we half rushed, still taking out our protractors and Rosetta Stones trying to figure out what it was.
“This is a ”Go” defense.”
MSU”s multiple looks, which have seen the team run three- and four-man fronts and blitz from all three levels, has helped the team transition, linebacker K.J. Wright said. Wright had his best performance this season against Georgia, totaling seven tackles, four pass breakups, and three hurries.
“(Our defense) really confuses offenses,” Wright said. “As you can see, sometimes offensive line will be confused in who to set the protection to. But that just goes to credit coach Diaz. He gets us in position to make a lot of plays.”
Through four games, MSU leads the SEC in fewest penalties and least penalty yardage per game.
MSU coach Dan Mullen said coaches stress discipline in everything they do and emphasize practicing and playing at game-tempo within the laws of the game.
That process began in the offseason with strength coach Matt Balis, Mullen said.
“Our workouts aren”t just lifting weights or running sprints, there is a lot of mental toughness, and he”ll do things when their exhausted to challenge them through some complex agility stuff and makes sure they”re getting the right work so they can keep that mental focus when they”re tired,” Mullen said. “Hopefully we can remain the least penalized team.”
Wright praised Balis” conditioning program, which includes wrestling workouts, or “mat drills” in addition to lifting weights. Wright said he can feel the difference late in games.
Through MSU”s early portion of the schedule, which has included three conference games, the Bulldogs have been involved in two games that have gone into the fourth quarter with less than three points separating the teams.
“We have to play clean football games for us to have a chance to win,” Diaz said. “And you can see, even from this past weekend, how tight these games are going to be.”
Cox, Green doubtful for Alcorn State
MSU hopes one of its two injured tight ends will be available, while two starters are doubtful to play against Alcorn State.
Brandon Henderson”s injured knee has improved enough that Mullen expects the senior to play Saturday, though starter Marcus Green”s knee injury is considered more severe.
“Marcus is still going to be day to day in how he goes and he still has a little bit of swelling,” Mullen said. “He ran at practice a little bit yesterday and had some swelling today, so we just have to see how he feels tomorrow.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is doubtful for Saturday after being diagnosed with a sprained ankle following a cut block late in the win against Georgia. Cox was wearing a protective boot Monday.
Sherrod earns weekly honor
MSU senior offensive tackle Derek Sherrod was named offensive lineman of the week by the SEC on Monday.
The 6-foot-6, 305-pounder helped MSU gain 314 total yard offense and allow no sacks against Georgia. The Bulldogs held the ball 19 minutes, 21 seconds in the second half, and had three of their five drives in the half go for 10 plays or more.
Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, Alabama safety Robert Lester and LSU cornerback/return man Patrick Peterson players of the week.
Auburn”s Mike Blanc won defensive lineman honors and Florida”s Trey Burton was the top freshman.
Associated Press reports were included in this report.