Sloppy half for the defense
Mississippi State football’s defense has been a massive disappointment this season. Though some regression was expected with several key pieces gone from 2022, no one saw this kind of drop-off coming. They aren’t close to being Peter Sirmon 2016-levels of bad (although we’ll see what November has in store…), but they’ve still been pretty bad.
Despite their struggles, the defense played outstanding against Arkansas, holding the Hogs to just three points. Now we must acknowledge the disaster that was the Dan Enos-led Arkansas offense, but even taking that into account, MSU’s defensive performance in that game was positive for reasons beyond the Razorback’s own ineptitude. State played with an edge we haven’t seen in any other game this season, and there was hope that would continue against an Auburn offense that had been pretty comparable to Arkansas’.
It did not continue.
At least not in the first half. The Tigers had 296 yards of offense in the first half. That was more yardage than they had in four of their games this season. They easily drove down the field for touchdowns on their first two drives. A field goal and last second touchdown to close out the first half created what was ultimately an insurmountable lead.
State’s defense woke up in the second half. After Auburn tacked on another field goal early in the third, they punted on three-straight possessions that totaled 16 yards. But it was too little too late. And considering Auburn attempted just two passes in those drives, it’s fair to say the Tigers weren’t exactly looking to keep the scoring going. They were looking to coast to victory, and they did.
How did Auburn light up MSU to open the game? They did it in a manner I don’t think anyone was expecting: with their passing game. Auburn QB Payton Thorne completed 15/20 passes for 192 yards and three TDs in the first half. Auburn as a team had just two games with more than 154 passing yards total coming into this one. Thorne himself had been averaging just 84 yards a game against Power 5 teams! Now he had been splitting time with Robby Ashford, but that was because his own struggles as a passer, including being wildly inaccurate, prevented him from cementing himself as the starter.
State went into this game committed to forcing Auburn to beat them through the air. Previously, all the Tigers could do was run the ball, so it wasn’t necessarily a bad strategy. They played with heavier boxes, had their safeties aggressively play the run, and kept their corners on islands.
You’d have hoped this at least paid off with a shutdown run defense, but that wasn’t the case. Auburn still ran for 186 yards at over five yards a carry. The Tigers’ OL got great push up front, and Mississippi State simply looked sloppy in run defense, with several broken tackles. An approach that made the Bulldogs vulnerable against the pass failed to deliver on its intention.
And that vulnerability was picked on by Thorne and the Auburn receivers. MSU wanted to force them to throw to win, and credit to Auburn, they took advantage. They aggressively took shots against man coverage, shown by their first score of the game.
Auburn leans heavily on RPOs. Both Hugh Freeze and OC Philip Montgomery have backgrounds in systems that build off of the RPO game, and given that the Tigers aren’t talented enough on offense to win with traditional means, it makes sense for them to embrace plays where the defense should technically always be wrong. And I don’t mean that as a slight. Do what works. I wish Mississippi State would.
Thorne throws his first TD off an Outside Zone RPO. The Tigers have stacked receivers aligned outside the numbers into the boundary on a smoke screen. The single receiver to the field side runs a vertical that I would assume is an option route. If he’s got soft coverage, he’s likely on a speed out. Against tight man, which the CB shifts into just before the snap, he’ll look to win downfield. Meanwhile the OL, TE, and RB are all running Outside Zone.
The decision comes down to numbers and matchups for for the QB. If it’s a favorable look to run the ball, he’ll hand it off to the RB, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s got the ability for a QB keeper option off the run as well. If the defense doesn’t walk out two defenders to account for the stacked receivers, he’ll throw the screen. And if he likes his matchup for the single receiver, that’s where he’ll go.
State takes away the screen. With both safeties playing within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, it’s clear the Bulldogs are aggressively playing the run. At this point, I’m sure Thorne knows he’s throwing to his single receiver. He still fakes it to his RB for good measure to suck in the field safety, and then he throws the vertical downfield.
MSU has a true freshman on the WR, and even with Auburn lacking elite talent out wide, that’s an advantage for the Tigers. Thorne throws a back-shoulder ball that the CB never comes close to defending. The WR hauls it in, and then drags the CB with him to the endzone.
On Auburn’s second drive, they score off a play-action deep shot. The Tigers get into a similar formation that also has stacked WRs into the boundary and a single WR to the field. The stacked receivers run stop routes. They sell vertical before slamming on the breaks and turning back to the QB. The single WR runs an out-and-up, faking a quick out before turning vertical up field.
The CB is sitting in the flat, expecting safety help over top. But Marcus Banks is playing down and doesn’t get over top until it’s too late. Wide open touchdown. I’m not going to say who’s at fault definitively unless I’m confident of the assignments on a play. I think Banks has coverage responsibilities for the TE to that side should he go out for a route, and with the outside receiver initially running to the flats on his double-move and the play-action from the QB, he’s not able to react quickly enough for the outside receiver turning vertical.
And with DeCamerion Richardson playing the flats and keeping his eyes inside, it’s easy to see how the WR gets behind him. This might have just been a great play-call from Auburn. But regardless, allowing the WR to get wide open deep certainly wasn’t the idea.
After State’s failed fourth down attempt late in the first half, the Tigers went on yet another touchdown drive. With 14 seconds left, Auburn is at State’s 7-yard line. They go with the most popular redzone pass play in the nation at the moment: Mesh Rail. We’ve talked Mesh Rail before. It’s a spin on the Air Raid staple with some simplified rules to make it more easily-integrated into other offenses, highlighted by a rail route from the RB as the QB’s first read.
State plays man free. While they send both Jett Johnson and Bookie Watson, they aren’t blitzing here. SAM LB JP Purvis plays as a spy and DE Donterry Russell actually follows the RB in coverage. I’ve been very high on Russell this season. I think he’s shown the flashes to become a star on the defense. But while he’s incredibly athletic as an edge rusher, I’m not sure he’s a guy you want playing man coverage, at least not at this point in his career.
But that’s what State calls, and it goes about like you’d think. The RB easily gets behind him, and it’s another easy TD for Thorne. It doesn’t help that Russell is coming out of a 4-point pass rush stance. I won’t hold back here. I despise this call. How are you going to ask one of your lineman, even an athletic one, to stay in coverage downfield with a RB? What’s the thought process there?
Did you not expect the RB to release on a route? Did Russell become responsible for the RB based on the RB aligning to his side? And if so, why are you even calling a play that allows it to be a possibility? I’ll be the first person to tell you that my understanding of defensive play-calling is limited. But I feel like it’s common sense to not put a freaking lineman in man coverage. If you want to see play-calling cost a team, here you go.
Mississippi State played about as poorly in the first half against Auburn on defense as they’ve played in any game this season. And that happening in a very winnable game against what is not at all a good offense after such a strong performance against Arkansas was disheartening. And again, they cleaned things up in the second half. But one good half doesn’t win you football games.
Couple that with an offense that literally couldn’t get out of it’s own way, and you see the result. State can technically still reach a bowl game. They can technically still turn things around in the final month and close out strong. But right now, there’s nothing to be excited about with this team and no reason to be optimistic that they do close strong. We’ll see if that changes.