We’ve been led to believe, rightfully so, that the star of Mississippi State’s coaching staff is Dan Mullen.
The spotlight, however, is slowly turning its gaze upon Manny Diaz, the Bulldogs’ first-year defensive coordinator. Not to make too much of one game, but State’s 17-14 loss to Auburn on Thursday gave us a glimpse of something that can be easily overshadowed by Mullen’s much-ballyhooed offensive schemes.
MSU is on its fourth defensive coordinator in as many years. You know what that leads to: Bad defenses.
Last season, MSU ranked 10th in the SEC in total defense and 11th in scoring defense. Same rankings in 2008.
Then we look at the Auburn game. This is the same Tigers offense that, under guru Gus Malzahn, ranked second in the SEC in total offense and third in scoring offense last season. And they did it a with a lesser quarterback than the man now running the show, Cam Newton.
You know what Newton can do. He torched Arkansas State for 186 passing yards and 171 rushing yards, five touchdowns in all. He’s clearly one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC and has the potential to be one of the best in the nation.
He had a pretty good game against MSU, passing for 136 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 70 yards.
However, in the second half, Newton had just 53 yards passing and 11 rushing, and Auburn scored zero points. That’s what you call making halftime adjustments.
MSU still has an obvious talent deficiency on both sides of the ball, but more so on offense. Diaz has more to work with than do Mullen and offensive coordinator Les Koenning, and his schemes are designed to maximize what he does have.
MSU only sacked Newton twice, but it found a way to limit the damage Newton is capable of inflicting and, given that its task was tougher than what Auburn’s defense was asked to do, it could be argued that Diaz’s defense out-played Ted Roof’s defense.
A look back
Let’s go back to last year. At Auburn, MSU got lit up, allowing 589 total yards in a 49-24 loss.
That set the tone for the season, as the aggressive approach promised by then-defensive coordinator Carl Torbush never materialized.
You don’t want to make broad judgments off one game, but I believe as the season goes on, MSU will be able to point to this performance as a turning point for its defense. Plenty more tests await, of course, namely Houston, Florida and Arkansas.
So perhaps this will prove an anomaly, but I don’t think so. Diaz has the goods, he’s shown that, and now he’s got SEC material to work with.
Mullen, for all his offensive know-how, also knows how important it is that his teams excel on defense.
“Myself personally, I’ve always been an offensive guy, but our program here, for us to be a successful program and a championship football program, it’s gonna be built on defense,” Mullen said last week. “If you look at the past of all the great Mississippi State teams of the past, they’ve always been built on great defense, and we’re not going to change that.”
Take the 2007 team, which went 8-5 and won the Liberty Bowl. The Bulldogs ranked fifth in the conference in total defense, sixth in scoring defense. They carried one of the worst offenses in the country.
So imagine what this defense under Diaz can do for Mullen’s offense, which is clearly miles ahead of whatever that was Sylvester Croom was running. The arrow of reason points toward success for MSU’s offense, but to what degree and at what point is still a mystery.
The defense, however, does not look like MSU defenses of the recent past. It plays with a purpose, gets after people, and brings the word “scrappy” to mind.
With Diaz and this defense, MSU can go places.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.
BRAD LOCKE / NEMS Daily Journal