Examining Mississippi State football’s defense against Western Michigan
While the offense managed to figure some things out, the defense continued to be a disaster for Mississippi State. Western Michigan came into the game averaging 385 yards of offense and 25 points per game. They went over both of those averages, posting 413 yards and 28 points. Obviously they didn’t greatly surpass their usually output, but when you’re a SEC team, you’d expect to hold a MAC team below their average rather than provide them with one of their stronger outings.
What makes it worse for State is the fact that WMU was without multiple starters on offense. QB Treyson Bourget was out after a 300-yard passing performance the previous week, and RB Jalen Buckley, who had been one of the nation’s most productive rushers, was also missing. Their top WR went out fairly early with an injury as well. There’s no reason to not totally dominate in those circumstances if you’re Mississippi State.
Early on, they did. The Broncos’ first five offensive possessions yielded just 54 total yards. Then, WMU made a change at QB. Hayden Wolff, a transfer from Old Dominion who had been the third-stringer for the Broncos, came into the game, and from that point forward, State’s defense reverted back to the terrible play that has plagued them all season.
Here were WMU’s next six drives with Wolff at QB…
14 plays, 75 yards, TD
Five plays, 26 yards, missed FG
10 plays, 75 yards, TD
Nine plays, 75 yards, TD
Eight plays, 35 yards, turnover on downs
Five plays, 75 yards, TD
Mississippi State managed to hold on Western Michigan’s final two possessions and close the game out, but for about two quarters worth of game time, the Bulldog defense got absolutely shredded by a mediocre offense that was greatly depleted and playing it’s third-string QB.
Hayden Wolff finished 27/35 for 262 and three TDs with one pick on WMU’s final drive. I should acknowledge that he was coming off a solid season at ODU before transferring, but still. He was third-string for a reason.
On Wolff’s first drive, WMU converted a 3rd & 10 after missed tackles allowed a receiver to the flats to get up field for the first down. After that, they kept picking good yardage on early downs to allow for easy conversions.
Here’s WMU’s first score of the game. The Broncos align in a 2×2 “12 personnel” (one of the “TEs” is actually an extra OL) set with a wing TE to the left. They shift the RB and wing TE, having them switch positions. They then put their TE in motion out of the backfield, sending him on a wheel route while the receivers to the right side run double slants. This is a pretty common red zone concept with the slants meant to create traffic and free up the wheel route behind them. WMU is just getting to it out of a unique way to try and create some confusion.
State blitzes with Bookie Watson. Shawn Preston widens with the TE in motion as if he’s supposed to follow him in man coverage. But at the snap he keeps his eyes in the backfield, looking to potentially cut-off a throw to the slants before passing that off to DeShawn Page. This brief hesitation allows the TE to get behind him, and with the slants pulling away the other DBs to that side, it’s an easy TD.
It’s hard to call this a bust because it’s really not clear if Preston is supposed to have zone responsibilities underneath or if there was some level of confusion between Page and Preston as to who had which responsibility on the play. Either way, Preston gets put into conflict, and that allows for the score.
There’s absolutely no question as to whether or not Western Michigan’s next TD came off a busted coverage though. The Broncos go with an empty quads bunch formation, with four receivers into the boundary. State runs a zero blitz. They’re rushing six against five in protection with each receiver manned-up. Simple football here. Can we get home before the QB can get the throw off?
Well in this case, the answer is no. Because MSU’s coverage players get confused as to who’s responsible for each pass-catcher. Two defenders go with the bubble route, leaving a TE wide open over the middle on a crossing route. With no high safeties as a final line of defense, it’s a walk-in TD. These blown assignments simply cannot happen, especially in a defense as aggressive as this one.
Speaking of things that cannot happen, how about having just nine defenders on the field for a 4th & 1? WMU embraces the hipster short-yardage offense by lining up in the T-formation and running the Blast play. And it works to perfection because State only has nine players out on defense! You can even see the moment where you’d ideally have a safety come flying down to meet the RB in the gap. Unfortunately the safety is on the sidelines. Now more than likely, they’d have gotten the one yard necessary to move the chains regardless, but only having nine on the field also allows this to turn into an explosive run.
Now there’s an perplexing context here that State initially had 11 players on the field for the play before the officials stop things. Zach Arnett is shown visibly furious on the sidelines. It seems he’s mad about a substitution issue, but what’s unclear is if the officials were stopping the play to let them substitute or send two of State’s players off the field. I have no idea why the later would be the case, but if it were the former, why didn’t two other players come on after the stoppage? Whatever the case may be, it wasn’t a great look.