Mississippi State football defensive film study: What went wrong vs South Carolina?

Sep 23, 2023; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) scrambles against the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the second quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 23, 2023; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) scrambles against the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the second quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /

Mississippi State football lost in a shootout to South Carolina. The Bulldog defense had another bad performance. What went wrong for the defense against the Gamecocks?

Mississippi State football’s loss to South Carolina left Bulldog fans with mixed emotions. Offensively, State finally seemed to figure some things out within the new system, and that’s given some fans hope for the team to possibly turn the season around. But it’s hard for anyone to truly feel positive about the rest of the year after the defensive performance we just witnessed.

For the second-straight week, State had an all-around bad showing defensively. The allowed 432 yards and 37 points to Carolina. While not quite as dreadful as what they allowed to LSU, those numbers look particularly awful when you consider than in the Gamecocks other two games against Power 5 competition, they had averaged about 100 yards less and more than 20 points fewer.

Though Spencer Rattler had posted impressive numbers through the air coming into the game, the Carolina offense as a whole hadn’t looked anywhere close to as good as they showed against State. The pass defense, or lack thereof, was a continued theme for MSU. They couldn’t consistently pressure Rattler despite Carolina having one of the nation’s worst OLs. They allowed Gamecock receivers to run free all night, and on the few instances where they had good coverage, Rattler killed them scrambling. It was a movie State fans have seen far too many times.

Perhaps even more baffling was how effective South Carolina was running the football. Going back to their struggles along the OL, SCAR has been horrible on the ground. While they didn’t gash State in the run game, they consistently churned ahead for good yardage far better than they had in any previous game. Despite MSU’s defensive flaws, they’re generally strong at containing rushing attacks. Allowing 144 to the Gamecocks is the opposite of strong.

This was a game Mississippi State really needed to win. And if you said their offense was going to score 30 and put up over 500 yards, I’d imagine everyone would assume they rolled to a victory. Instead, they got shredded on defense and took another frustrating loss. What went wrong?

What went wrong for Mississippi State football’s defense vs South Carolina?

I’m going to follow that same theme as last week and not waste time dissecting the handful of good plays made by the defense. While there may have been more positives overall than they showed against LSU, when you consider the strength of the opponent, you could argue they were just as bad.

So let’s get into the bad.

South Carolina has one (healthy) receiver that is a true big time threat: Xavier Legette. He had shined through the first three weeks of the season, terrorizing DBs in one-on-one situations. If there was any guy on the Gamecock offense that State should have looked at and said “hey, let’s not leave him single-covered and let him beat us”, it was Legette.

State faced a similar talent the prior week with LSU’s Malik Nabers. They chose to try and play man against him with little to no help over top, and Nabers made them pay to the tune of 239 yards and two TDs.

Surely State would’ve learned from their mistakes and change their approach against Legette, right?

Nope. Not at all.

On just the sixth play of game, State dials up their typical third down defense: man free. They’re sending pressure, they’re manning up the receivers, and they’ve got one safety over top. CB DeCarlos Nicholson has Legette. Legette runs a shallow cross (Carolina’s in the Drive concept we discussed in the offensive film study), Nicholson stumbles briefly, Legette gets wide open over the middle for the catch, safety Jordan Morant can’t make the tackle, and Legette takes a three-yard reception 76-yards for the score.

Well obviously after that State wouldn’t just leave him one-on-one again, right? Uh, no. No, they did it again. And again, he makes them pay.

It’s the first play of the second half, State again plays man free with Nicholson on Legette, and Legette just beats him on a simple go route for a 75-yard touchdown. Why? I couldn’t tell you other than that’s it’s State’s nature to play aggressively on defense, and I guess they’ve grown tired of allowing easy yardage on underneath completions when dropping back into zone. But you’d have thought they realized man hasn’t consistently worked either.

Which even when in zone coverage, Rattler was able to find completions beyond the sticks too. Usually MSU’s approach in zone coverage is to force the completions in the short area of the field and then run up to make the tackle for a minimal gain (which they haven’t consistently done). But on a few occasions Rattler was able to find his TE Trey Knox open in the intermediate part of the field against zone coverage.

Here’s an example on 2nd & 10 late in the third quarter with the game tied at 27. The Bulldogs are in quarters coverage with safety Shawn Preston down in the box to act as the middle hook player. South Carolina once again runs the Drive concept (these teams love them some Drive). Knox has the dig route over the shallow. He runs it at a deeper depth than you’d typically see for the concept (about 15 yards) but the idea remains the same: force a Hi-Lo between the underneath defenders.

Preston bites on the shallow cross, leaving a huge throwing window over the middle to Knox on the dig route. Rattler is well-protected (shocker) and delivers a strike before safety Corey Ellington can break it up.

This completion gave Rattler a 15/15 start to the game. He finished 18/20 for 288 and two TDs.

Another recurring theme with the Mississippi State defense is their inability to contain mobile QBs. Rattler isn’t much of a runner, at least not usually. But he’s more than capable of making teams pay if a lane is there for him to scramble. He ended up with 43 rushing yards on Saturday, and only once did he keep the ball on a designed run (a zone read that fooled the entire defense).

Here’s a great look at Rattler killing the Bulldogs with a scramble on 3rd and 13 in the second quarter with the game tied at 14. It’s third down, so guess what coverage State is in? If you guessed man free, congrats on paying attention. Now I guess to give State some credit, this is one of the few times they played man and the coverage was actually good. When that’s the case, you expect to get either get a sack for force the throwaway.

Unfortunately neither happens because despite the pressure, a huge running lane opens up the middle, and Rattler takes off. With all the coverage defenders in man, they aren’t watching Rattler to see him scramble. He gets an easy 25 yards to keep what ends up being a scoring drive alive.

State goes for more of a speed rush package here by having just two DL and four LBs on the field. DE Deonte Anderson tries to twist with LB John Lewis to get pressure up the interior, but Carolina does a great job of picking it up. DT Jaden Crumedy also gets completely walled off by the LG, meaning there’s no pass rusher in the middle, and Rattler has all the space in the world to run.

Finally, we’ll look at that run defense that was just unimpressive throughout the night. The Gamecocks stayed ahead of the chains picking up solid yardage with their tailbacks who had previously been completely ineffective. Ironically, they mostly found success running Wide Zone, effectively beating MSU at their own game.

But the run that stands out the most is this touchdown run that ultimately puts the game out of reach. It’s 2nd & Goal from the nine with under 10 minutes to go, shortly following the controversial fumble by Will Rogers (which, unfortunately, I do believe was, in fact, a fumble). The game is officially on the line here.

South Carolina gets into an under-center bunch set with three receivers tight to the formation. They run Crack Toss, a sweep play that features the playside tackle pulling as a lead blocker and a receiver getting a “crack block” back on the DE before he can get into the backfield. Xavier Legette is tasked with executing the crack block on DE Deonte Anderson. Legette doesn’t pull it off, and Anderson has a chance to make a shoestring tackle on the RB. He misses, but it’s hard to put much blame here, as that’s still a tough play to make.

The issue is what happens after that. Multiple MSU defenders are in position to make the stop, and all of them completely whiff on their tackle attempts. Then four Gamecocks come together to literally push their RB into the endzone, bowling over the final line of the Bulldog defenders. South Carolina goes up two scores in the fourth quarter. Ball game. If you’re looking for an embarrassing play, that’s it.

What do we take away from Mississippi State football’s defensive effort vs South Carolina?

Things have soured quickly for Mississippi State’s defense. We put so much attention on the changes on the offensive side of the ball and whether or not that transition would go smoothly (it hasn’t) that we almost completely overlooked the potential concerns for the defense.

I think most of us assumed all would be fine on that side of the ball. Yes, State lost some incredibly talented pieces, and I did acknowledge there might be some growing pains at those spots. But this is still a veteran unit, and there’s simply an expectation for State to pretty much always field a competitive defense, especially under Zach Arnett. That clearly isn’t the case this season. Rather than experiencing growing pains, you’re seeing full-on bad play.

What exactly is the solution? I don’t know. I’ve thrown out the idea of MSU embracing a hyper-conservative, Rush 3-Drop 8 approach to takeaway both the explosive plays downfield and the easy completions underneath, forcing opposing offenses to be much more patient and put together sustained drives to score. What that does is invite teams to run the ball more, though there are ways to still limit rushing attacks within that style of defense.

Considering State’s front six is made up of run-stoppers, I thought it could work well. But after seeing one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks push around the Bulldog defense, I might be rethinking that.

Granted, I don’t think MSU is suddenly bad in run defense, and though the average fan would likely disagree, heavily limiting the passing game in exchange of selling out to stop the run tends to be the way to go in the modern age.

And while State had a mostly good night on offense against South Carolina, I have my doubts about that performance being consistently replicated going forward. Do we trust State to be able to win shootouts? I don’t. A defensive style that slows down opposing offenses and eliminates fast scoring drives may be the best way to maximize the defensive talent and complement the offense.

Regardless of what route they choose to take, Mississippi State has a lot to figure out on defense. If it isn’t sorted out soon, this season could fall apart in a hurry.

Next. Mississippi State Bulldogs offense find life vs. South Carolina. dark