Havoc plays = Victory for Mississippi State Bulldogs
The 3-3-5 defense at Mississippi State has long been associated with disruption. Joe Lee Dunn terrorized offenses with his never-ceasing aggression, and the scheme was revived in Starkville under Zach Arnett, who has never shied from living dangerously.
But for much of this season, State hasn’t exactly created much disruption on defense. The pass rush hasn’t been there. They’ve failed to regularly force turnovers. And simply creating the negative plays we’ve been used to has been a struggle.
That changed on Saturday. There’s a great stat used to visually the disruption caused by a defense called “Havoc Rate”. It shows how frequently a defense gets either a tackle for loss (obviously including sacks), a pass deflection, an interception, or a forced fumble. The Bulldogs had 13 such plays against Arkansas for a Havoc Rate of 19%. That was their second highest rate this season behind a whopping 30% against Arizona, a game which was the epitome of “high risk, high reward” football for both the MSU defense and Wildcat offense.
State’s defense was stout in spite of havoc plays. The run defense looked more like what we’re accustomed to. Beyond QB scrambles, Arkansas’ longest run of the day was eight yards. The secondary played much better coverage, not allowing the shots downfield and wide open space that’s plagued them this season.
But their high Havoc Rate, specifically with tackles for loss, regularly forced Arkansas into 3rd & Long scenarios that their offense is not equipped to handle. That’s when KJ Jefferson is going to be asked to be a dropback passer, and that’s just not his strong-suit.
Here’s a few examples of such plays…
The first is this hammering TFL from Dog safety Shawn Preston is the first quarter. Arkansas is running a RPO off of GT Counter with the option to throw a bubble screen. We’ve talked about how the Dog safety in this defense is heavily involved in stopping the RPO game, frequently flying down on perimeter screens that the QB assumes to be open.
Pre-snap, State has three DBs aligned over three Arkansas WRs. They’ve got numbers to handle a screen, but with Preston playing about 10 yards off the line, there’s feasibly space for a bubble screen to be thrown and the receiver to get up-field. But State had a pressure called on this play that put them in a good position to defend this RPO.
With both a DE and Jett Johnson rushing off the backside edge, they can account for both a give to the RB or a QB keeper if an option run is called. This leaves Preston free to attack the slot receiver on the bubble. Jefferson’s first two options are taken away immediately, and Preston blows up his presumed outlet on the screen for a TFL. We should also give credit to Jett Johnson for forcing a high throw. Any slim chance that screen had of working was killed with the errant pass throwing off the timing of the play.
Just before the end of the first half, MSU gets their second sack of the game. They run a zone blitz with safety Corey Ellington off the edge. What I like about this call in this situation is that it’s “aggressively playing safe.” Usually when State blitzes, they play man coverage, and what has frequently happened this season has been them getting burnt for big yardage. There’s under a minute to go here with Arkansas on their own 30, but they still have all three timeouts.
There’s plenty of time for them to put together a drive to get points before the half. You don’t want to blow what’s been a great half of defensive football by allowing an explosive play because a blitz didn’t get home. But you also don’t want to just sit back and allow easy completions with that much time left, especially when you’ve seen your pressures be effective.
The zone blitz call allows for State to get after KJ Jefferson but be less likely to get beat for an explosive play if he does get the pass off. And Jefferson doesn’t get the pass off because no one blocks Ellington. Arkansas is sliding their protection away from Ellington, and the RB, who’s responsible to make that block, releases into his route before realizing he’s got a blitzer to deal with. It’s too late for him to correct his mistake, as Ellington gets a strip sack before Jefferson can even get to his hot read. As a result, Sam Pittman chooses to run out the clock rather than try and score.
As much as this was a great call for State, you can see the poor execution from the Hogs that’s done them in this season. The RB not knowing he needs to block the safety is the obvious one. Whoever is responsible for pointing out pressures and setting the protection didn’t do their job here. You’ll also notice the TE and WR to the bottom of the screen run into each other because the TE tries to chip the SAM LB. That’s not an uncommon thing to do, but given that the WR is on a shallow cross and has to cross the TE’s path, I’d be stunned if the TE wasn’t supposed to free release here on a route to get out of the WR’s way.
Finally here’s a great play to open up the second half. Arkansas calls for a jet sweep, and the Bulldogs shut it down. Kudos go to two Dawgs here: safety Marcus Banks and Edge Donterry Russell. First, Banks is the one who initially allows this TFL to happen. He gets by his blocker and forces the ball-carrier to slow down. His blocker knocks him out of the way before he can make a tackle, but Banks still disrupts things.
Secondly, credit to Russell for having the athleticism to get out on the edge and make a play. He’s left unblocked because the play design is meant to freeze him, but even after leaning inside for the threat of a handoff, he rebounds quickly enough to go make the tackle. Now to be clear, Arkansas probably gets decent yardage off this without Banks slowing the ball-carrier down. But even with that, there aren’t just a ton of Edge rushers quick enough to stop that for a loss after initially letting the guy by him. He’s got the chance to be a special player.
It’s tough to expect State to play dominant defense on a down by down basis. But if they can at least get back to forcing the havoc plays this defense is meant to create, they can give themselves a chance the rest of the way.
There’s lots of speculation as to whether or not Zach Arnett took back over play play-calling from DC Matt Brock considering how much better the defense looked and the style they played with. I’m not going to speculate either way. They had two weeks to prepare, and regardless of who called the defense, they put together a fantastic gameplan and executed it perfectly.
Obviously, Arkansas has plenty of issues offensively. It’s why their OC is now out of a job. But this was a promising step forward for the defense. And the offenses they have left to face on the schedule each have their own flaws. We’ll see if Mississippi State can build off this win.