Mississippi State football film study: Why did MSU’s defense fail vs. LSU?

STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI - SEPTEMBER 16: Jayden Daniels #5 of the LSU Tigers carries the ball during the second half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)
STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI - SEPTEMBER 16: Jayden Daniels #5 of the LSU Tigers carries the ball during the second half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images) /

Mississippi State football got embarrassed by the LSU Tigers in Starkville. And while much of the focus is on the offense, the defense was equally terrible. What went wrong for the Bulldog defense?

Everything that could’ve gone bad for Mississippi State football against the LSU Tigers did. The Bulldogs looked completely outmatched, both in terms of talent and coaching, by the Tigers in a 41-14. That’s a palindroming. You never want to get palindromed.

Much of the attention has been put on the offensive performance, given that it’s the side of the ball that has experienced the most prominent changes and fans are most eager to see improvement there. But while it’s become commonplace in Starkville to complain about a poor offensive showing wasting a strong effort by the defense, that’s not at all what took place against LSU.

The Mississippi State defense was just as bad as the offense. They allowed 530 total yards at nearly seven yards per play. The Tigers punted just twice in 11 possessions, and the only other times they didn’t score were the ends of the halves. And while it could be easy to blame the offense continuously failing to sustain drives, causing the defense to tire out, LSU had no issues moving the ball on the Bulldog defense to open up the game.

This was one of the worst defensive games we’ve seen from MSU in a long time. And considering they hinted at these flaw against Arizona too, it’s become clear very quickly that this defense is no where close to being on par with the majority of State defenses of the modern era. Couple that with what’s so far been an abysmal offense, and the outlook for the remainder of the 2023 season looks bleak.

What went wrong for Mississippi State football’s defense against LSU?

Just like I did with the offensive film study, I’m not going to waste time highlighting what few positives there were in this game for the defense. On the few occasions that the defense did make a good play, they would immediately follow that up with a mistake. So I don’t see the point.

Going into the game, the defensive gameplan for State seemed pretty straightforward: get pressure on QB Jayden Daniels, don’t allow easy completions, and contain Daniels when he tries to scramble.

State went 0-for-3. Sounds a lot like our baseball team.

Daniels had plenty of time in the pocket, rarely getting pressured by the Bulldogs. The result was arguably the best passing performance of his career. Daniels went 30/34 for 361 yards with two TDs and no INTs.

We saw that lack of pass rush on LSU’s very first third down of the game. The Tigers are facing 3rd & 2. State is playing man free, meaning they’ve got man coverage across the board with a single high safety over top. This is typically a pressure look, and that’s what State shows with five defenders walked up on the line.

As is often the case with MSU, they don’t actually send each of those rushers. In fact, they don’t even blitz. Both WLB Jett Johnson and SLB DeShawn Page bluff pressure before dropping back to spy Jayden Daniels with one to each side of the line. MLB Bookie Watson does rush, along with the three DL.  Those four rushers do absolutely nothing to affect Daniels.

LSU’s RB does initially stay in to help block, and he gets a good knock on Watson. But the issue is less the lack of immediate pressure (though that’s definitely not ideal) and more that the pressure doesn’t come close to bothering Daniels until about five seconds after the ball is snapped. He has all day to wait for a receiver to come open.

Truthfully, he had Malik Nabers open on a shallow cross over the middle (more on him later…) but clearly doesn’t trust making the throw over the spying Jett Johnson. That decision doesn’t matter though because he still gets plenty of time to find another receiver. After helping block, his RB leaks out through the OL and finds open space to the right. I tend to assume either Johnson or Page was responsible for staying with the RB if he went out, but no one follows him. Daniels eventually finds him for the conversion.

There’s no reason for this to have not been a stop for the MSU defense. The pass rush has to get after Daniels there. This is one of the few plays were the secondary actually plays decent coverage, but it’s wasted because no one applied any pressure on the QB. This has been a continuous theme for the Bulldogs, and that has to change.

Where that lack of pressure particularly kills State is with their inability to hold up in coverage. This secondary has been poor the last two weeks, and because State isn’t forcing QBs to make quick throws and poor decisions with their pass rush, the deficiencies on the backend are only amplified.

One player made sure to take advantage of that. To say that WR Malik Nabers, who, in case you didn’t know, was a longtime Mississippi State commit before flipping to LSU on signing day, torched State’s secondary would be doing him a disservice.

The man caught 13 passes for 239 yards and two TDs. It’s one of the best performances by a WR you’ll ever see. Nabers got absolutely anything he wanted the entire game. This easily could’ve been a 300-yard day if LSU wanted it to be.

The plays that have every State fan pulling their hair out are Nabers two TD receptions. In both situations, State plays the same coverage with the same defender responsible for Nabers, and both times Nabers runs the same route for a score.

We’ll go with the second score here because we get an All-22 angle to look at. And this is the one that was even more infuriating considering it was on fourth down and DC Matt Brock calls for the EXACT SAME COVERAGE that LSU won against the first time. Definition of insanity, anyone?

The Bulldogs are once again in man free, but unlike in the previous example that featured this coverage, they are going to send five pass rushers on a blitz while dropping DE Deonte Anderson back as a spy.

Side Note: the idea of using a 260 pound defensive lineman to try and contain a QB who moves like Jayden Daniels in a scramble situation is just insane to me, but I digress.

Something that is frequently present within Zach Arnett’s 3-3-5 is the use of the safety as a man coverage player against slot receivers. There isn’t a true nickel corner in the defense, and the LBs are mostly box players trying to defend the run. What this means is there’s more pressure put on safeties to hold up in one-on-one scenarios.

Opposing offenses, obviously, know this. So something you’ll regularly see them do is put their best receiver in the slot against State to draw a matchup on a safety, who simply isn’t going to be as good in coverage as a corner. When a QB sees man coverage in this situation, it’s a greenlight. That’s where he’s going.

Sure enough, that’s what happens here. LSU puts Malik Nabers in the slot where he’s matched up with safety Hunter Washington. Nabers is running a slot fade. Jayden Daniels knows it’s man coverage, he knows Washington can’t stay with Nabers, and he knows the lone deep safety isn’t going to be able to get over top to help. All he has to do is make the throw. 4th &7 turns into a 17-0 lead.

Of course when State wasn’t getting burnt deep by Nabers, they were allowing plenty of space underneath for he and LSU’s other pass catchers to gain easy yardage. State playing soft coverage isn’t new, but it was taken to an extreme on a few occasions on Saturday, and LSU took advantage. When you play off, the idea is to rally up and tackle anything thrown underneath before it turns into a significant gain, and State struggled with that.

It became of case of “pick your poison” for Brock and Arnett’s defense. Either play conservatively and allow cheap yards for conversions, or play aggressively and get beat deep.

Finally, while Daniels didn’t scramble nearly as much in this game as he did a year ago (he really didn’t need to), he was still very effective when he did. Here’s an example in the second half. MSU is in their typical quarters scheme, but at this point, they’d finally gotten tired of Nabers killing them deep. So rather than having three underneath defenders, as you typically would in quarters, they have Marcus Banks carry Nabers downfield while still keeping Shawn Preston over top to double Nabers.

This leaves just Jett Johnson and Bookie Watson as the lone underneath defenders. Johnson has the middle hook, Watson has the boundary flat, and there’s no one defending the flat to the field side. This means Daniels has a ton of open space to his left. He’s not under much pressure (what a shocker), but with good coverage downfield and plenty of room there for him to run, that’s what he does.

Johnson has his eyes on Daniels, but there’s no way he’s running him down in the open field. Ideally, you’d have someone spying Daniels, but because of how poor coverage was in this game, MSU wasn’t all that willing to sacrifice an extra body in coverage for the sake of containing Daniels. And he made them pay. It didn’t matter what State tried. They had no answers for stopping the Tigers.

 Takeaways from Mississippi State football’s defensive performance

It’s become clear very quickly how badly Mississippi State misses the pieces they lost from the 2022 defense. Losing Tyrus Wheat and Randy Charlton has all but eliminated the threat of a pass rush. Emmanuel Forbes had been able to lock down half the field, and now you’re running out corners who simply can’t. Even the losses of less heralded players like Jalen Greene and Jackie Matthews are hurting State with safety play being so poor.

I had big concerns about how State would replace those players coming into the year. I mentioned with the offense that it’s nearly impossible to be successful offensively if you’re bad both along the OL and at QB. On defense, it’s nearly impossible to be successful if you can’t generate pressure without blitzing and you’re poor in coverage.

This game was probably the best example we’ve seen of that. And it has me wondering if State needs to take a different approach. This has traditionally been an aggressive defense since Arnett brought the 3-3-5 back to Starkville. We haven’t seen that nearly as much this year because of how much of a liability the secondary is.

State has played slightly more conservatively on the backend to try and keep everything in front of them, but if QBs have all day in the pocket, it doesn’t matter. Guys will get open. If you know you can’t generate pressure anyways and you’re weak in coverage, then why not an approach that chooses to sacrifice pass rush in order to maximize coverage?

When previewing the defense, I suggested that if neither the pass rush nor pass coverage materializes as we’d prefer, State might want to consider adopting a scheme similar to the Iowa State 3-3-5, dubbed the “Flyover Defense”.

It’s a “rush 3, drop 8” approach meant to takeaway both downfield and underneath completions, makes RPOs far less effective, and still stay sound against the run. That last point is the key here. You typically associate playing with a light box and dropping eight into coverage as being bad in run defense. But the Flyover’s nature is to force offenses into running the ball only to swarm up and stop those runs for minimal gains. Considering State’s front six defenders are much stronger against the run than they are the pass, this may be the way to go.

If State were to go that route, I’d probably wait another week, however. South Carolina is absolutely horrible along the offensive line. That is a game where Mississippi State should finally be able to generate a pass rush. Maybe give the DL one more week to show they can at least handle that group before embracing a peak “bend but don’t break” mentality.

Next. Why did Bulldogs offense fail vs. LSU?. dark