Mississippi State’s Defense
While the offense got most of the attention, there were several things to watch for the Bulldog defense too with several new faces in the secondary and key positional battles up front. And overall, it was a good showing.
State allowed just 208 yards on 3.85 yards per play. Some sloppiness and bad luck led to Southeastern’s lone scoring drive. Missed tackles allowed for the Lions to convert a 3rd and 20, and SLU converted another 3rd down by catching a tipped pass despite great coverage. Some smart play-calling as the drive continued allowed for the Lions to get on the board.
But outside of that one drive, SLU had just five other 1st downs the rest of the game. They had only 63 yards in the 2nd half. That’ll do.
So who made a big impact?
Pickering’s breakout year?
When I did my defensive preview series, the 1st part highlighted who I believe is the most important player on the Bulldog defense in 2023: Nathan Pickering.
Pickering was State’s 2nd-highest rated signee in 2019. There’s long been an expectation for him to become a wrecking ball along the defensive interior, and he’s had flashes of brilliance. But the consistency has never been there.
With Cameron Young gone at nose tackle, it’s time for Pickering to step up. And perhaps he began a stellar senior campaign on Saturday.
Pickering was a force against SLU. His three tackles won’t jump off the page, though it’s rare for interior lineman to record lots of tackles, but what does stand out were his three QB hurries. Pickering never got home for a sack, but he forced SLU’s QBs into throw aways.
He showed his dominance with this rush on SLU’s 2nd drive of the game. State is showing an all-out pressure with both Bookie Watson and Jett Johnson creeping up to attack the A-gaps. Zach Arnett (and now DC Matt Brock) loves to call double A-gap pressures with his LBs.
But MSU actually isn’t going to blitz here. They’re only going to rush four but allow the illusion of the blitz to free up a pass-rusher. Both DE De’Monte Russell and SAM DeShawn Page are going to bluff rushing off the edge and then drop back into coverage. The hope is that the threat of them off the edge should occupy the offensive tackles long enough to allow an interior pass rusher to break through the line unimpeded to the QB.
That’s exactly what happens.
The RT is held in check by Russell bluffing his rush, and the RG picks up Jett Johnson rushing the A-gap. This allows Pickering to run free through the B-gap. SLU’s RB attempts to slow him down, but he’s not match. The QB just barely gets rid of the ball as Pickering drives him into the ground.
Obviously, Pickering is going to greatly outmatch a FCS offensive line both in size and talent. He should make plays like this in this matchup. But as mentioned earlier, the consistency hasn’t always been there. This is a great start to his final year.
Bookie Watson is still HIM
One guy we had no questions about was Nathaniel “Bookie” Watson. The preseason All-SEC LB was second in the SEC in tackles last season (only behind running mate Jett Johnson) and was tied for the team lead in sacks.
He’s a terror in the middle of the defense, and he picked up right where he left off Saturday. He had 8 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 pass broken up, 1 QB hurry, and forced and recovered a fumble. Pretty dang good.
With SLU facing a 3rd and 7 to open up the 3rd quarter, Bookie showed his dominance as a pass rusher. He twists with DE De’Monte Russell. Bookie attacks the B-gap while Russell loops around behind him to the A-gap. Ideally, Watson will occupy both the RG and RT and Russell will get free up the middle.
But why simply occupy a pair of lineman when you can beat the blocks of both of them? Bookie blows right through the RG and RT and sacks the QB to force the punt.
Again, you expect a SEC LB to dominate against a FCS team. But this is par for the course for Bookie Watson. He’s done this plenty against SEC offenses and will continue to this fall.