It's still difficult to understand No. 25 Mississippi State's first-quarter woes. The Bulldogs have a 72-62 advantage on the scoreboard in the first quarter but have out-scored their opponents 209-80 in the last three quarters. Most astounding is the 12 points the team as given up all year in the fourth quarter with nary a touchdown.
The best possible answer could be the affect of MSU's pass defense. Offenses have had success passing the ball early but the Bulldogs 63 tackles for loss and 20 sacks thanks to dialed up pressure from defensive coordinator Manny Diaz have taken their toll.
"I've always felt that relentless pressure eventually bursts the pipe," Diaz said. "Quarterbacks will have a good plan to try and get the ball out of their hand early. In the first quarter you might not get there, in the second quarter you might get around the guy, in the third quarter you're starting to hit him and in the fourth quarter the ball is just not getting there.
That's what has happened in each of the last two wins over Louisiana Tech and Kentucky against two solid quarterbacks that went from picking apart MSU's secondary to missing their targets routinely. This past win over the Wildcats was especially impressive according to Diaz.
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"What I liked about last week is we played fast. When we made a mistake, we made aggressive mistakes. The drives they were able to sustain were converting third downs which has been our strength all year," Diaz said. "Overall, just the way we looked, it was the best we've been all year."
State did so without the help of potential All-SEC cornerback Will Redmond. The senior defensive back is out for the season with a torn ACL and there were plenty of challenges for the unit. Fellow senior corner Taveze Calhoun more than made up for his loss with two interceptions with the game still in doubt.
"Taveze was crucial for us because he was a leader and made the plays when the game was in the balance," Diaz said. "That's what you need your seniors to do regardless of the situation. Whether it was (Tolando) Cleveland, (Cedric) Jiles or(Jamoral) Graham, they were all aggressive, they played fast and they tackled well. Holding Kentucky to the passing yards that we did was a big confidence booster for our secondary."
The bye week for Diaz consists of getting older players rest and healing injuries, less experienced players an opportunity to clean up their mistakes and the redshirts a chance to get even more practice reps than usual. It's a beneficial week for all of his players.
It also gives MSU another week to prepare for uncertainty in Missouri. Though the Tigers are struggling offensively, they do have a dangerous quarterback potentially back on the field with Matty Mauk expected to play next Thursday.
Mauk nor freshman Drew Lock have been able to expel the offensive woes that continued when the team hit rock bottom in a 10-3 loss to Vanderbilt last week. The focus still needs to be there for Diaz's unit.
"There are some differences in the skill set of the two guys. We'll expect to see both, I don't think there's any doubt about that," Diaz said. "That position is fun to talk about sometimes but the way we play up front, the way we defend the running game and wide receivers, will be telling regardless of who is playing quarterback."