Mississippi State Football Defensive Film Study: Examining Arizona

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Jett Johnson #44 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the game against the Arizona Wildcats

STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI – SEPTEMBER 09: Jett Johnson #44 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the game against the Arizona Wildcats at Davis Wade Stadium on September 09, 2023 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

Mississippi State football vs Arizona Wildcats: the Good on Defense

You can’t begin talking about Mississippi State football’s big plays defensively against Arizona without first mentioning Jett Johnson. The sixth year senior linebacker made the decision to return for his final year of eligibility in 2023, and so far, it’s paying off big time.

Johnson had arguably the best game of his career against the Wildcats. He recorded 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and two massive interceptions. Jett was all over the field on Saturday, and for the first time in his career, he was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week. As Matt Wyatt shows here, there was a three-play sequence in crunch time in which Jett makes three-straight crucial stops to hold Arizona to a field goal.

Jett Johnson’s first interception of the game came in the first quarter on Arizona’s second possession of the game. This a great play to look at considering that it’s successful because of both Jett and his partner in crime, Bookie Watson.

State is showing two-high coverage pre-snap, but they’re actually going to rotate safety Marcus Banks down to get into a version of Cover 3. Johnson is going to drop into a hook/curl zone, meaning he’s responsible for defending an underneath seam.

Up front you’re going to get an interesting alignment and personnel grouping for State. Deonte Anderson and Nathan Pickering are the only defensive lineman on the field. They both line up as edge rushers while Bookie Watson and John Lewis, who comes in as a fourth linebacker, threaten the interior of the offensive line.

At the snap, Watson briefly threatens the right guard before looping all the way around Anderson, pressuring de Laura off the left edge. Because de Laura starts off looking to his right and is then under pressure from Watson, he never sees Johnson dropping to defend the seam. He throws it right to him for an interception, which Johnson runs back to the six-yard line. State scored two plays later.

Another player that deserves recognition is safety Shawn Preston. He also put together one of the best performances of his career with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and an interception. Preston’s INT was the third thrown by de Laura in as many drives. It was the exact type of play you want to see from a single-high safety: he reads the QB’s eyes from the middle of the field and flies over to rob the deep shot.

His forced fumble ends up being an incredibly monumental play in the game. After opening the game with just one first down and three interceptions, the Wildcats finally put together a sustained drive. “Sustained” is putting it lightly. It was a 19-play, 76-yard drive that took over nine minutes off the clock.

Facing a 3rd & 2 from the MSU six-yard line, Arizona goes with a RPO that gives de Laura the ability to get out on the perimeter. It’s a zone read with a receiver working across the formation for an arrow screen. De Laura can hand the ball off to his RB, keep the ball around the edge, or throw the arrow screen out wide.

DE De’Monte Russell is left unblocked as the first read. He stays wide to contain the threat of a QB run, but for some reason de Laura chooses to not hand the ball off (which likely gets them a first down) and instead tries to keep it. Once it becomes clear that he can’t evade Russell, de Laura flips the screen out to WR Jacob Cowing, who has blockers out in front and is plenty dangerous in space.

But this decision doesn’t work either because as soon as Shawn Preston recognizes Cowing going across the field for the screen, he swarms down to blow the play up in the backfield. His hit knocks the ball loose, and Hunter Washington scoops it up for a 35-yard run back. If not for that forced-fumble, Arizona could’ve kicked a chip-shot field goal that, assuming all else stays the same, would’ve given them a win.

Before the season, I broke down some of the key question marks for the defense, and when discussing the secondary, I laid out how the “Dog” safety in the Mississippi State defense plays a crucial role in RPO defense. This play from Preston is a perfect example of that.

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