Mississippi State Football Film Study: What worked vs. Southern Miss?

Nov 18, 2023; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Southern Miss Golden Eagles running back Frank Gore Jr. (3) runs the ball against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the second quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 18, 2023; Starkville, Mississippi, USA; Southern Miss Golden Eagles running back Frank Gore Jr. (3) runs the ball against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the second quarter at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports /

Mississippi State football played it’s first game since firing Zach Arnett. Despite a sluggish start and some tense moments, they pulled away for a win over Southern Miss. Let’s look at a few of the games biggest plays.

We’re in the midst of a transitional period for Mississippi State football. Last week, it was announced that the program was moving on from HC Zach Arnett just 11 games into his tenure dating back to last season’s Reliaquest Bowl victory. Arnett’s first true season residing over the program went miserably. The changes he chose to implement did not at all pay off, and given that the direction of the program had quickly turned south, new AD Zac Selmon chose to make a move.

Now, we all eagerly look to message boards or social media (and of course right here at Maroon and White Nation) to learn the latest on the coaching search. But the football season is still going on. State still had two games remaining on its schedule once Arnett had been fired, starting with this past weekend’s matchup with Southern Miss. Greg Knox took over for his second stint as Mississippi State football’s interim coach, looking to maintain his streak as the only coach with a 100% win percentage in MSU history.

Luckily, he did! State got the win 41-20 over the Golden Eagles. The Bulldogs got off to somewhat of a sluggish start in this game, and there was a moment in the fourth quarter where USM had cut the lead to six. But State was able to pull away immediately after that point and even ended up covering an 18-point spread with a three-touchdown victory.

I’m going to be honest with you all. I didn’t get to watch this game and only kept up by regularly checking my phone for the score. I don’t have it recorded, and seeing as how the game was only available through streaming, there are almost no highlights available. So truthfully, I’m not at all prepared to give you any sort of analysis on what took place on Saturday, nor can I commit to a true film study.

Even if I wanted to, the aforementioned lack of highlights makes diving into anything more than the few good plays put out by the Mississippi State football Twitter account (or “X”, I guess) basically impossible. There’s not even a clean look at Jeffery Pittman’s long touchdown run to put the Bulldogs back up two scores in the fourth quarter. I have no idea what play they ran there other than it being a handoff!

So with all that in mind, this is going to be an incredibly vanilla “film study”. Technically I had pretty much gotten to that point with these already because of how poorly the season’s gone. But in this case, my resources are what they are. We’ve got four clips worth looking at available to us. Let’s make the most of it.

The Nation’s Best Linebacker Duo Shines

Mississippi State football’s defense has largely been disappointing this season. The unit has not lived up the standard expected in Starkville on that side of the ball. But if there were two players that absolutely no one would complain about, they’d be linebackers Bookie Watson and Jett Johnson.

Bookie and Jett have brought it every single week for State for their entire careers. After finishing as the SEC’s top two tacklers in 2022, they both decided to run it back for one last season in 2023. And all they’ve done is just further prove that they’re the very best linebacker duo in the nation.

Once again, they’re the top two tacklers in the conference, and they’re both top-10 nationally. Bookie leads the SEC with 10 sacks, and Jett is second in the conference with 14 TFL. The two are absolute monsters over the middle of the field, and they had all-time performances on Saturday.

Bookie posted an absurd 21 tackles plus a strip sack. Jett had 18 tackles of his own to go along with a sack and an interception. If you want to see what it looks like for two guys to carry a defense, that’s it.

Watson’s strip sack comes early in the second quarter. As they so often do, MSU disguises where they bring the pass rush from on this play. Pre-snap it looks like the rush will be from the three DL plus SAM LB JP Purvis, which are the usual four pass rushers in this defense. But just before the snap they walk Watson up to the line opposite of Purvis.

At the snap, Purvis drops into the boundary flat as a part of a Cover 3 look from State. Watson rushes off the edge from the field side. The slant from the DL towards the boundary leaves Watson completely unblocked with a free path to the QB. USM’s QB is looking to the boundary side where he’s got a Smash variation to try and hi-lo the flat defender. But with the CB dropping into a deep 1/3 behind it, State has this covered up.

If he works the Snag concept to the field, he could at have at least hit the RB to avoid a sack. But with his eyes the other way and his initial read taken away, it’s an easy sack for Bookie, who also forces the fumble. Despite getting the short field, MSU’s offense couldn’t manage more than a field goal off that fumble recovery. So the next time the Bulldog defense forced a turnover, they simply handled things themselves to put the game away.

State’s up 14 late in the fourth, but USM has a 1st & 10 from the Bulldog 40. State goes with a very similar Cover 3 play as on the last turnover, again dropping their SAM into coverage with Bookie rushing off the opposite edge. The biggest difference is that with USM in a 3×1 formation, State chooses to play man coverage against the single receiver to the boundary side, which is a common Cover 3 adjustment vs that look from an offense.

I’m not sure what the QB sees here, but he throws it right to Jett Johnson dropping into his hook/curl zone to the field side. Perhaps he didn’t think Jett would get over to that zone in time. Jett picks it off (his third INT of the year), and just before being tackled, he makes the heads-up play to pitch the ball back to Marcus Banks, who takes it 60 yards for the game-sealing touchdown.

Bookie Watson and Jett Johnson have both had remarkable careers leading the Mississippi State defense. Despite the struggles of this season, they’ve continued to give it their all every week and have made the plays necessary to give this season any sort of life. I trust those two will do everything in their power to assure the Egg Bowl won’t be their final game.

Offensive Playmakers Find Paydirt

The story of the day for the Bulldog offense was the return of QB Will Rogers and RB Woody Marks. Rogers hadn’t played since before Mississippi State’s bye, and Marks’ last action came against Arkansas. Naturally, both players were rusty.

Marks saw 12 carries for just 34 yards, struggling to get much going. State ran for 238 yards as a team, but a large chunk of that came off a 59-yard TD run from Jeffery Pittman that again, no one seems to have a full replay of that would allow me to break down the play. Rogers finished under 50% completion percentage at just over five yards per attempt, as State’s passing game failed to take off.

Still, Rogers did manage to toss a pair of touchdowns in his first game back. Technically both of those TD passes were simple dump-offs that the pass-catcher turned into scores, but they show up as TD passes on the stat-sheet nonetheless. And truthfully, that’s a good encapsulation as to how scoring has had to happen this year for State’s offense – skill players making plays when nothing else is working.

The first score came off a RPO screen to Tulu Griffin. State has Inside Zone called with Griffin motioning across the motion into an Arrow Screen. There’s a bit of “Split Zone Bluff” action here, though the backside DE isn’t left unblocked and the read isn’t off a LB or overhang defender like you’d typically see on the play. Rogers is reading how the DBs play the screen. When he sees the CB drop back into a zone, allowing Zavion Thomas to get a block on the safety flowing with Griffin, he pulls the ball and throws it out to Griffin who’s able to scamper for the score.

While Woody Marks didn’t have a huge day in his first game back, he did reach the endzone, taking a play-action dump-off from Rogers 15 yards for a TD. MSU has a 3rd & 1 in the USM redzone on their opening drive of the second half. They go under center with a heavy “13” personnel tight bunch look. One of those “TEs” is actually an extra OL. It’s an obvious run look, so that makes it a great time to break out play-action.

Rogers gives the quick fake to Marks with the OL slide protecting the other way. Marks gets out into the flat with no one around him. The LB who I think was responsible or him gets held up by the run fake. Rogers has a free rusher in his face but is still able to easily complete it to Marks who races up the sidelines to put State ahead 23-7. Nothing fancy here or on the other touchdown pass. It’s simply getting your best playmakers easy touches and letting them do the rest.

Mississippi State’s offense will certainly have to be much better on Thanksgiving if the Bulldogs want to have a chance to take down their rivals. But it was good to get Will Rogers and Woody Marks back out on the field for a tune-up game ahead of the Egg Bowl.