By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
The second “Off the Radar” preview in the Southeastern Conference this week comes to you from Starkville, Miss., where No. 15 Mississippi State welcomes No. 16 Texas A&M on Saturday.
Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs (7-1, 3-1 SEC) are looking to rebound after suffering their first loss of the season at the hands of No. 1 Alabama last weekend. The Aggies (6-2, 3-2) are fresh off a rebound win of their own over Auburn last week and are looking to stay alive in the race for the SEC Western Division in their second consecutive road trip.
Although Bama is in the driver’s seat in the West, each of these teams is still in contention and each still has a big-time division showdown looming on Nov. 10 – A&M with Alabama, and State with LSU. November is when championships are won, and a win this week to start the month off on the right foot could provide a slingshot into the stretch run for one of these squads.
Kickoff from Davis Wade Stadium is slated for 11 a.m. Central on ESPN.
Texas A&M Offense vs. Mississippi State Defense
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin told reporters on Wednesday’s Coaches Teleconference that the toughest part about adjusting to life in the SEC for the Aggies so far has been the uncertainty – A&M has little to no familiarity with their opponents from recent matchups to aid their preparation.
But so far in 2012, there’s been plenty of uncertainty for the rest of the conference regarding how to stop quarterback Johnny Manziel. The explosive redshirt freshman has taken the SEC by storm in A&M’s debut season, leading the conference in total offense and ranking fifth nationally. Johnny Football has given new meaning to the term “dual-threat”, showing a propensity to burn teams with his throwing ability and with his improvisational style on the ground.
The dilemma for opposing defenses so far has been which poison to choose when defending the Aggies. Mullen believes you can’t choose one – you’ve simply got to play great all-around defense.
“If you give him all day to stand back there and throw the ball, he’ll throw and beat you with his arm,” Mullen said Wednesday. “If you give him open spaces, he’s going to take off and beat you with his legs. You have to do everything to contain him.”
The Aggies have had early offensive success against everyone they’ve played, but the teams that have had the most success in containing Manziel – Florida and LSU – have shown the ability to adjust on the fly. The Gators and Tigers both weathered the early onslaught before tweaking their schemes and corralling the Aggies in the second half well enough to win.
Manziel isn’t the only weapon for the Aggies. They are certainly dangerous across the board at the skill positions with players like Ryan Swope and Mike Evans outside, and Ben Malena and Christine Michael in the backfield. But make no mistake: Defending A&M begins with containing their QB.
Manziel is at his best when he is moving around, freelancing and making plays. The MSU D must be disciplined enough to rush the passer without getting too far up-field, which creates running lanes for Manziel. LSU’s controlled pass rush provided a good example against A&M in the second half of their win at Kyle Field. While Johnny Football’s arm is dangerous, MSU would rather make him get rid of the ball and force other Aggies to beat them.
If the Bulldogs can produce pressure, they’re confident in the ability of their star-studded secondary to defend the pass. Led by Jonathan Banks and Darius Slay, who both have four interceptions on the season, MSU has forced 21 turnovers on the year and limited aerial production. The physical Bolldog corners cause trouble for opposing receivers and QBs alike, and a few takeaways would go a long way toward getting the home crowd involved and keeping the Aggies’ up-tempo attack on the sidelines.
“Not only is it a good secondary, it’s an experienced secondary,” Sumlin said of MSU's defensive backfield. “You’ve got three seniors and a junior, and an All-American in Banks. These guys have played a lot of football, [and] been on the field with a lot of good players.”
Another good defense against A&M is something that the Bulldogs’ defense can’t directly influence: Ball control. That will fall on the shoulders of the offense.
Mississippi State Offense vs. Texas A&M Defense
Mullen made it a point on Wednesday to compliment the TAMU defense. After all, with the amount of the fireworks produced by Sumlin’s offense, the D is oftentimes overshadowed. Mullen even went as far as to call the unit the most underrated in the SEC.
In order to help the MSU defensive effort against the no-huddle, up-tempo attack they’ll be facing, the Bulldogs need to be able to sustain drives on offense against the Aggies. That initiative will start with the conference’s second-leading rusher, LaDarius Perkins.
Perkins has been consistent for MSU, picking up 5.4 yards per carry on his way to 762 yards and eight scores. The A&M defense has shown vulnerability against the run, surrendering over 160 yards per game on the ground over their last five outings. The Bulldogs will put themselves in a much better position to win by avoiding three-and-outs and controlling the tempo with their proficient ground game.
Simply winning the time of possession battle is not the objective for Mississippi State; an up-tempo offense like A&M’s always has the ability to score quickly. The Aggies aim to run as many plays as they can in a short period of time, which results in less time of possession than their opponents in just about every game (A&M averages 28 minutes per game). Nonetheless, the Mississippi State offense will look to extend drives to keep the ball away from Manziel and Co. while also allowing their defense to rest and avoid facing quick turnarounds against a fatiguing offensive style.
The Aggies have not forced any turnovers in their last three games, and that will not be an easy trend to reverse against MSU. The Bulldogs are in the top-10 nationally in turnover margin, sitting at plus-13 for the season through eight games. Tyler Russell has been excellent in ball security, throwing only two picks in 233 attempts.
Texas A&M’s defense has not been stellar statistically, which is partially a product of its offense scoring quickly. The Ags do excel in rushing the passer, led by fierce defensive end Damontre Moore, whose 10.5 sacks are the third most of any player in the nation. Moore, who also has 18.5 tackles for loss, has good size to be physical against the run and his speed off the edge makes him a terror in the pass rush. As a team, A&M is second in the SEC in sacks with 26 total.
Forcing turnovers against a team that takes such good care of the ball won’t be easy for TAMU, but the Aggies have not had to rely on takeaways to get off the field -- A&M has held opponents to a meager 27 percent conversion rate this season on third downs. If Mississippi State is unable to put together scoring drives against the Aggies, the scoreboard could light up for TAMU at Davis Wade.
Special Teams Players to Watch
Kicking has not been a strength for either team this year. A&M’s Taylor Bertolet has converted only 62 percent of his field goal attempts while MSU’s Devon Bell is sitting at a 60 percent success rate. The duo has been solid on extra point attempts, though.
Aggie Trey Williams has been one of the better kick returners in the conference, and he could have opportunities for big plays against a Mississippi State team that has allowed five returns this year of 30-plus yards. Dustin Harris has taken a punt to the house for the Aggies and is averaging a solid 14 yards per return.