HATTIESBURG – A.J. Jefferson had a feeling the Mississippi State football team’s defense was capable of shutting down an opponent’s running game.
The junior defensive end was proven right Saturday night in a 34-16 season-opening victory against Southern Mississippi, as the Bulldogs allowed 102 yards rushing and met every rusher with a hard hit.
“(Defensive line coach David)Turner’s been telling us all week if we can take away the A gap runs, they won’t have anything,” Jefferson said.
The biggest example of stopping the run came on a goal-line stand midway through the second quarter. With MSU leading 14-10, USM quarterback Nick Mullens found Brian Anderson for a 44-yard pass that moved the ball to the MSU 3-yard line. USM then rushed the ball four-straight times and didn’t score.
“That was one of the key points of the games,” junior defensive lineman Chris Jones said. “We stopped them on the goal line. That was a changing point of the game.”
Jalen Richard rushed the ball for 1 yard on the first play. Former Noxubee County High School standout Dylan Bradley rushed the ball two times put only picked up 1 yard. He was met by Jones on the second carry for no yards. The Golden Eagles went back to Richard on fourth down, but Jefferson met him before he got to the goal line. The stand reminded Jefferson of MSU’s goal-line effort last season at LSU.
“That told me a lot about our defensive line,” Jefferson said. “We had the same situation against LSU, gave up a big play last year, but we got down there and we still had to play. It was really a great feeling for the D-line.”
The stand allowed MSU to take a 14-10 lead into halftime. The defense allowed 28 rushing yards in the opening half.
“I think it was a huge turning point for our defense and a huge boost for our defense to make that stop down there,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “If we can keep them out of the end zone from six inches away, all we have to do is not give up the big play and they won’t be able to score.”
Southern Miss rushed for 64 yards in the third quarter, but it had only 10 in the fourth quarter. Ito Smith led the Golden Eagles with 69 yards on eight carries, while Richard had 48 on 16 carries.
Jefferson led the MSU defensive lineman with six tackles and two sacks, while Jones had four and a half tackles. Junior Nelson Adams had two and a half tackles, senior Ryan Brown had two tackles and a sack, and junior Nick James had one tackle.
“At times, I thought really solid, making some big plays,” Mullen said of the defensive line. “We played a bunch of guys. I would have liked to get one or two more guys in the game.
“I thought we played well. At times we gave up a little too many yards, but I don’t think it’s an issue. I think it’s something we can easily make some adjustments to.”
The Golden Eagles had more success throwing the ball, as Mullens was 30 of 44 for 311 yards and one touchdown. Richie Brown and Kendrick Market had interceptions, but Mullens exploited the secondary to keep his team in the game until late in the fourth quarter.
MSU was without senior cornerback Taveze Calhoun, who was held out as a precaution with an unidentified injury, but Mullen said he should be ready to go next week when MSU plays host to LSU at 8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams. It will be LSU’s season opener because its game against McNeese State on Saturday was canceled due to lightning.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.