By JOEL COLEMAN
Last Saturday, before going on to defeat Louisiana Tech 45-20 on homecoming at Davis Wade Stadium, Mississippi State was in trouble. Two LA Tech offensive drives had equaled two touchdowns and MSU found itself in a 14-0 hole.
It was far from uncharted territory for Mississippi State. In seven games this season, opponents have put up the first points in four of them. All four of those times, MSU found itself trailing after the first quarter.
Now looking down the barrel of five straight Southeastern Conference games, falling in an early hole is a trend MSU intends to stop and stop now.
“(Defensive coordinator) Coach (Manny) Diaz points that out all the time on the sideline,” Mississippi State defense tackle Nick James said. “He’ll say ‘we have to stop this.’ It takes a touchdown for us to wake up on defense, but as soon as we wake up (we’re) tough.”
Mississippi State’s defense has indeed proven to get better and better as the game goes along. MSU has allowed 126 total points this season. Less than 60 percent of that total has come in quarters two through four.
Over 40 percent (52 points) has come in the opening period of games.
“I think we’re just trying to get out of this mentality of hesitation,” Diaz said. “We have guys that get into games and I think they’re still a little unsure of themselves, especially at certain positions where we’re youngest. The teams that have generally had some success early on us in the first quarter, if you look probably most of the yardage was through the air where we knew we were a little greener in the middle.”
Diaz said as the youngsters in the secondary spend more time on the field, they settle in.
“For whatever reason, they get in there and they get confident,” Diaz said. “Then all of sudden we get into the flow of the game. It’s a frustrating thing as a coach to watch, but I think it’s part of the process. At least you know when we get it locked in that we’ll battle pretty well. But I suspect that’s something that maturity and growing up will start to overcome.”
Some may want to point to Diaz and give all the credit to him for MSU’s ability to adapt after early-game struggles. Despite his well-respected defensive mindset, Diaz said Mississippi State’s improvements as games go along can be attributed to more than just strategy.
“There’s going to be adjustments,” Diaz said. “But I’d be lying if I said ‘look at all these wizard-like adjustments.’ If that were the case, we’d just start better with more wizardry.”
So the challenge that now faces Diaz and head coach Dan Mullen is obvious – find a way to get MSU’s defense playing at its best from the opening kickoff on.
“It is just getting out there, getting a fast start and getting into the flow of the game immediately,” Mullen said. “That is a part of transitioning into running out of the tunnel to the foot hitting the ball, where they can be ready to go 100 miles per hour to play at their absolute best at that second.”
One thing is for sure. While there may be a number of first-year players on the field at any given time, youth won’t be accepted as an excuse for poor performance.
“We’re well past that point,” Diaz said. “That came at about 9:30 p.m. at Southern Miss (in the season opener) because no one cares. The other teams have young guys too.
“It’s never okay. As a coach, on one hand, you can’t kill their confidence, but you have to be firm and talk about what’s real and the high standard that we have for our defense. When we allow people to score on us, that bothers us immensely no matter who is in the game.”