STARKVILLE — Mississippi State coach Mike Leach didn’t mince words after Saturday’s 49-9 loss to No. 5 Alabama when it came to the performance of the Bulldogs’ wide receivers.
“I did not think our receivers were consistently where they were supposed to be,” Leach said. “They figured, ‘Oh, Alabama’s really good and they’re so superior, we’ll just go ahead and invent a route’ and invent some route known only to them — not a chance in hell we’ll find them, but they go ahead and invent it anyway. It’s ridiculous.”
Those miscommunications were prevalent throughout the contest and helped explain a rough night for quarterback Will Rogers — 35 of 55 passing for 300 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions.
And the Bulldogs know it can’t happen again when they take on Vanderbilt at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s a small thing that we inflicted on ourselves,” redshirt senior wide receiver Austin Williams said. “It kind of sucks looking back at it, but we’ll look at it, move on and obviously make those changes this week.”
Inside receivers coach Dave Nichol said the communication issues took the form of missed signals between Rogers and his targets and vice versa. Williams said he himself missed a signal from Rogers at one point, a rarity for him and the team.
“We really haven’t had a ton of them up until that point,” Nichol said. “I think at times a guy can lose focus.”
Against the Tide, those lapses led to big plays. Rogers was picked off by Josh Jobe and Jordan Battle in the first quarter, with the second interception returned for a touchdown.
It played a big role in the eventual lopsided scoreline, and Mississippi State knows it can’t afford to give a struggling Vanderbilt team the same help Saturday.
“We’ve got to do a better job as coaches,” Nichol said. “I’ve got to get my guys going better on the inside.”
Wright poses new challenge for Bulldogs
Mississippi State has yet to face a true dual-threat quarterback so far this season.
That will change Saturday when Vanderbilt starts sophomore Mike Wright for the second consecutive week. Wright, who took over for the injured Ken Seals last week against South Carolina, ran 15 times for 41 yards in addition to passing for 206 yards and a touchdown on 21 attempts.
Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett said the Commodores do a good job moving Wright out of the pocket and allowing him to either throw on the run or take off with the ball. His ability to do both makes stopping him an issue.
“I would say on every single play, all 11 guys have got to be aware of the danger he poses,” Arnett said. “You’d better be able to pursue the football, and you better have disciplined eyes.”
Wright has a total of 139 rushing yards on 36 carries this year, so he’s hardly dominating defenses on the ground. But that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs can write him off as harmless, junior safety Collin Duncan said.
“When he rolls out of the pocket, we’ve got to work on latching onto the receivers; making sure that we’re locked in on our assignment, locked in on our guy; making sure that we’re not just running around,” Duncan said.
If the Bulldogs fail in that objective, Arnett said, it will lead to an unpleasant surprise Saturday afternoon.
“Vandy’s going to come out and punch us in the mouth,” he said. “If I haven’t done a good job of getting us prepared during the week, I’m sure that will wake you up. We better be ready for a 60-minute, fourth-quarter war or else we’re going to get beat.”
‘A big shot in the gut’
Duncan knows not every opposing offense punishes defensive mistakes in the same fashion.
“Some teams might give you a touchdown; some teams might just give you 10 yards if you mess up,” he said.
He and his teammates found out once again Saturday night Alabama falls in the latter group. Touchdowns of 75, 51 and 46 yards cost the Bulldogs dearly against the Crimson Tide, resulting in a scoreline Mississippi State won’t soon forget.
“We know we’re better than we put out on tape Saturday, and especially 49 points,” Duncan said. “For somebody to come into our house and put up 49 points, that’s a big shot in the gut.”
As usual, though, Arnett claimed responsibility for what went wrong, saying the biggest thing that needs to be addressed is his own play calling. The coordinator did consistently dial up blitzes that never seemed to get home before Alabama quarterback Bryce Young released the ball for a big gain downfield.
“It’s the responsibility of the coach to put them in the best position to be successful,” Arnett said. “On certain downs and distances, there were certain calls that did not do that. … I made some play calls that put them in some really bad positions against some really good players.”
Time and time again, Alabama took advantage. Vanderbilt might not.
But the Bulldogs can’t bet on that.
“I feel like we don’t back down from a challenge,” Duncan said. “In this league, we really can’t. It’s a challenge every weekend.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.