By JOEL COLEMAN
One day last week, Mississippi State defensive end A.J. Jefferson arrived at the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex expecting breakfast prior to a morning workout.
“I got there and I see rope,” Jefferson said with a laugh after Saturday’s 45-17 win over Troy. “We had to do rope pulls for breakfast.”
Just like that, the tone for the week was set. Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen wanted his defense to play with more of an edge. That message came across loud and clear.
The Bulldog defense harassed the Trojans early and often over the course of Saturday’s victory. In the first half, Mississippi State surrendered just 31 total offensive yards to Troy. The Trojans averaged less than a yard per play in the first two periods.
Of the 37 plays Troy ran in the first half, MSU’s defense limited the Trojans to no gain or a loss on 19 of them. Jefferson said the Bulldogs’ success could all be traced back to the practices leading up to the game.
“I feel like (the coaching staff) did a great job of preparing us this week to just come out and dominate somebody,” Jefferson said. “I felt like everybody was more into it this week. Bodies were flying everywhere.”
In one of MSU’s practices during the week, Jefferson said the Bulldogs went full contact for the first time since fall camp.
“I could tell there was a big sense of urgency,” Jefferson said. “Everybody was more into it. Everybody was juiced up. Some tempers got to flaring. I feel like it was a great week.”
With the added intensity against Troy came another bonus for the Bulldogs. For the first time all season, Mississippi State won the turnover battle. Brandon Bryant sacked Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers, forcing a fumble that MSU’s Nelson Adams recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
Bulldog linebacker Beniquez Brown picked off a pass on Troy’s first drive of the second half.
Mullen was happy to see the week’s work play out on the field.
“I like the edge that we played with,” Mullen said. “Guys were playing with that chip on their shoulder that we expect guys at Mississippi State to play with.”
Per usual, Jefferson was one of the leaders of the Bulldog defensive attack on Saturday. In the game, he totaled seven tackles, a half of a sack and two tackles for loss. Jefferson has now had at least one tackle for loss in seven straight games and has tallied 12 total tackles for loss in that span.
“(Jefferson) is a guy that plays with a little nastiness to him,” Mullen said. “I think he really does do a good job setting the tempo for our defense out there on the field. It’s great to see his growth in that way, the way he takes responsibility and takes ownership of being the guy that everyone looks for to go make a play, be a leader and set the standard for our defense.”
As big of a piece as Jefferson is to MSU’s defense, he said Saturday was less about him and more about everyone taking ownership of their individual roles.
“We’re not looking at each other wondering who is going to make the next play,” Jefferson said. “We’re all like ‘I’m going to do it. It’s my time now.’”
For that newfound attitude, Jefferson repeatedly pointed to the time spent in the workout room and on the practice fields earlier in the week. Now Mullen’s hope is that the defensive momentum from Saturday carries over to the second half of the season.
“We had 11 guys on that field playing nasty and running to the football,” Mullen said. “We told our guys not to step on the field unless they were ready to play our style of defense and get after people. I saw the edge in practice this week out of the defensive side of the ball and I think it’s going to get better even. That’s the type of defense I expect us to play.”