Things looked pretty smooth Saturday in the first half for Mississippi State’s new defense under coordinator Peter Sirmon.
The Bullogs’ defense held things together out of the 3-4 alignment. A.J. Jefferson and the front seven often tackled the South Alabama Jaguars for losses on the way to a 17-0 MSU halftime lead. The Jaguars had negative 5 yards rushing in the first half.
Then came the second half. The MSU offense sputtered, the stands emptied and the defense began to tire.
Meanwhile, South Alabama continued to hold things together. By the end of the game, the USA offense held possession of the ball for 36:41 while MSU for just 23:19.
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A late USA touchdown drive broke the back of an inexperienced MSU defense, and the Jaguars pulled off a 21-20 season-opening upset.
“I guess we just got comfortable and let them come back,” Jefferson said. “The coaches kept telling us ‘stay on them, stay on them.’ With a young defense, it has to come from within and I have to do a better job of preaching that to them.”
It wasn’t for lack of effort on Jefferson’s part. The senior defensive end had a monster game with seven tackles, a career-high four tackles for loss and two sacks. His teammates were in the backfield often with 11 tackles for loss and three sacks, but didn’t force any turnovers.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Leo Lewis played solid with nine tackles in his MSU debut. But overall, Jefferson saw the youth of the group come to the forefront. MSU looked and played young.
“They went out there and made a bunch of plays that we should have stopped,” Jefferson said. “They just made a lot of plays. We had a bunch of young guys that played for the first time. I feel like those guys did pretty well.”
Senior linebacker Richie Brown of Long Beach had a quiet game, making only six tackles, but he joined the 200-tackle club and now has 203 total stops.
The defensive line played without senior nose tackle Nick James, who was suspended. Last week, the Long Beach native was arrested in Starkville for DUI and disturbing the peace, though the charges won’t be pursued. James’ suspension was announced about an hour before the game.
Freshman defensive lineman and former five-star recruit Jeffery Simmons also missed the game, serving a one-game suspension. In July, Simmons pleaded no contest to simple assault.
Both James and Simmons could be back next week and the Bulldogs need the help upfront.
Where the most help seems needed is the secondary, as MSU allowed nearly 300 yards passing. Cornerback Lashard Durr of Gulfport had a strong game and ended his first day as a starter with three tackles and allowed only one catch.
MSU coach Dan Mullen feels the rest of the group needs work. He’ll review the game to see exactly what positions need the most improvement.
“We’re going to have to watch the film and see how they fared,” Mullen said. “Obviously, we gave up 285 yards passing, which is a lot. I’ve got to go back and see how much are on the corners, safeties and other parts of the field.”