STARKVILLE — When Tem Lukabu was Colgate’s leading linebacker at the beginning of the millennium, the Patriot League had not yet adopted the spread system that has since overtaken college football. It was still the traditional offenses of decades prior: downhill running, the fullback alive and well.
When he watches Iowa film as Mississippi State’s linebackers coach, he’s given deja vu. That means a different kind of challenge for his linebackers.
In the modern era, college football defenses have grown so accustomed to playing with five or more defensive backs on the field — to counter the spread — that many form their base defenses that way, and MSU is no different. For the 11 a.m. Tuesday Outback Bowl (ESPN2), the No. 18 Bulldogs (8-4) will have to deploy a classic 4-3 alignment to matchup with Iowa’s downhill attack.
MSU has used this configuration rarely, primarily for short stretches against Kansas State and LSU. On Tuesday, it will be no short stretch. MSU will have to live in it.
“We have some different personnel groupings in this week, and when they get into two-back that’s going to be required,” MSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “They’re going to get to play old-school, power football. Leads, outside zones, some things like that. It’s going to be fun.”
On the surface, the change is a significant one in both structure and personnel, to make no mention of the shuffling communication roles and assignments potentially involved. MSU coaches say in this system, the change is an easy one to make.
“Within our system, it’s pretty easy. It’s more of a fill in for an X as opposed to doing something that you normally wouldn’t do,” Lukabu said. “In certain packages, even in our Nickel, the Star is doing a lot of what a third linebacker would normally do.
“From day one, the good systems I’ve been around, that’s how it’s set up. You don’t want a surprise at the middle of the season or the end of the season and have to teach something new.”
One way of thinking of it is running the same system with more size. In this case, it’s Willie Gay Jr.’s size (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) in place of a Star defensive back such as Jaquarius Landrews (6 feet, 190 pounds) or Marcus Murphy (6-foot-1, 195 pounds). That size is needed considering at one point Iowa had three offensive linemen — left tackle Alaric Jackson, center Keegan Render and right tackle Tristan Wirfs — start at over 205 pounds, Jackson and Render doing so at 320.
Since the coaching staff believes there is little in the way of assignment changes, that leaves the players on the field to take on a new mentality.
“For me, it’s not so much the physicality of it — don’t get me wrong, you better bring it against these guys — it’s a mentality thing. That’s what Iowa does a great job of and they’ve been doing it forever: their mentality is we’re coming at you, we don’t care that you know it, you have to stop it,” Lukabu said. “It’s fun that way. We see what they do to people if you’re not playing your technique right.”
That mentality is one of sheer physicality. When linebacker Erroll Thompson watches film of Iowa, he doesn’t see the motions and other presnap tricks deployed in typical pro-style offenses. With Iowa, he said, “what you see if what you get.”
“I take it as a fun challenge, being able to be physical,” Thompson said. “I think that’s one of my best skill sets and all the linebackers, I feel like we’re going to take pride in that.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson