STARKVILLE — It was a performance that most members of the Mississippi State defense would like to forget.
MSU (2-0) will get its first chance to put memories of performance against Alabama-Birmingham out of its mind at 3 p.m. Saturday (ESPNEWS) when it takes on South Alabama (1-0).
Last week in a 47-34 victory against UAB, MSU surrendered 435 yards passing and three touchdowns that went for 75 or more yards. The effort came one week after the defense posted the school’s first shutout since 1999 with a 49-0 demolition of Southern Mississippi.
Each member of the defense, including defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, has worked this week to make UAB’s outburst is an anomaly.
“It was very eye-opening for us,” said Collins, whose team finished fifth in the Southeastern Conference in pass defense in 2013. “I think it put a little chip on our shoulders this week. I have no doubt our guys will be ready.”
The Bulldogs’ defense, which produced 11 tackles for loss, two sacks, and an interception return for a touchdown, allowed three home run plays by the Blazers, who rushed for 330 yards in their opening-week victory against Troy. That explosiveness on the ground and a conservative week one game plan in the passing game from UAB led Collins to admit, “We probably spent 75 percent of our preparation leading up to that game focusing on stopping the run, and we did. We focused on getting off the field on third down, and we did. The thing is, they took five shots on us, and on most days, you’d be lucky to hit two out of five. They hit all five. Credit goes to their quarterbacks, their receivers. But now our focus shifts back to making sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Despite UAB’s offensive fireworks, the game was never in doubt in the second half, as MSU led 47-27 entering the final minute before the third of the Blazers’ deep balls accounted for the final margin.
For senior safety Jay Hughes, who has an interception and a special teams touchdown, the loss of focus in the passing game was disappointing.
“We were a little casual in the secondary, and that can’t happen,” Hughes said. “Even though it’s kind of hard to get pumped up for games like that sometimes, the coaches did a good job all week of putting us in the right positions. We just have to do a better job as players of making plays.”
The defensive letdowns against UAB set the tone for MSU’s preparation for South Alabama. The trip to Mobile, Alabama, will give the Bulldogs a chance to face a familiar opponent at quarterback. South Alabama senior Brandon Bridge, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder, made his mark against MSU as a freshman quarterback for Alcorn State in a 51-16 loss to MSU in 2010. Bridge, who transferred to South Alabama after his freshman season, had for two touchdowns against the Bulldogs that day.
“I remember him running him wild up and down the field,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said of Bridge’s 2010 performance. “I do remember a blur of him running by me on the sidelines that day. I think what you see in him is more of a quarterback. He was a guy there running around making plays. He’s a guy now that is playing like a quarterback. You see in his decision-making process, he’s not out there just trying to make plays, he’s trying to manage the offense, make good decisions, get to his third and fourth reads in progression and being a quarterback more than just an athlete out there that was running around on the field.”
Bridge showcased that efficiency in a season-opening 23-13 win at Kent State. He was 15 of 25 for 161 yards and a touchdown. He also had 13 carries for 42 yards. More importantly, Bridge leads an offense that figures to look similar to UAB.
“They run a lot of the same stuff, give a lot of the same looks,” Collins said. “The difference is South Alabama’s players have spent years in the system, while UAB’s had only worked on this offense for about eight months.”
While effective at times against Kent State, South Alabama’s offense wasn’t dominant. The Jaguars posted 186 rushing yards and 161 passing for a total of 347 yards. MSU’s offense has rolled up 550 and 534 yards in its games.
No matter the offensive effort put forth by South Alabama, MSU’s focus on defense will be to prove it is a unit that resembles the one that shut out Southern Miss, rather than the team that struggled against UAB.
“We threw a lot of deep balls at them in practice this week,” Collins said. “Having said that, we had two great days at practice. These kids are resilient, they are tough. They will bounce back.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat