STARKVILLE — When asked how he and his teammates plan to slow down a Southern Mississippi passing attack that averaged 38 attempts per game in 2013, Mississippi State cornerback Taveze Calhoun’s answer had nothing to do with the Bulldogs’ defensive backfield.
Instead, the junior focused on another group of Bulldogs that will be crucial in Saturday night’s season opener.
“I think it all starts up front with our defensive line,” said Calhoun, who finished second on the team with three interceptions a season ago. “If they can get pressure and get to the quarterback, it makes our job easier. I know our guys up front have been working hard, and they’re hungry. I think we’re going to see big things out of them this year.”
How big an impact MSU’s defensive line, led by sophomore defensive tackle Chris Jones and senior defensive end Preston Smith, makes will likely help determine the outcome in the game that will begin at 6:30 p.m. on the SEC Network. The matchup of MSU’s defensive line against the USM offensive line pits one of the Bulldogs’ biggest strengths against one of the Golden Eagles’ biggest weaknesses.
In short, it’s the most pivotal matchup on the field.
“They are big and they are physical,” USM coach Todd Monken said of the MSU defensive line. “They’re just plain nasty. We have to do a good job up front and match their physicality.”
That will be a tall task for an offensive line that ranked as one of the country’s worst in 2013. The Eagles rushed for 855 yards in 12 games, good for 123rd out of 125 Division I teams. USM’s offensive line allowed 36 sacks, which registered 109th in the nation.
That’s a bad combination for a group that will try to slow down a push by a big, experienced MSU defensive front. Jones, who recorded a team-best 10 quarterback hurries, is the headliner. The former five-star prospect out of Houston High School enters his sophomore season as one of the best defensive linemen in the conference. He anchors a line that finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards.
Jones is joined by depth and talent across the line, including seniors defensive tackles Kaleb Eulls, Curtis Virges, and P.J. Jones and Smith at defensive end. Smith, a 6-foot-6, 267-pound senior, led MSU with six-and-a-half sacks.
A year after struggling up front offensively, USM returns three of five starters. It will fill the remaining two spots with junior college transfers. One of those transfers, guard Norman Price, committed to play at Mississippi State before switching to USM late in the recruiting process.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat