By BRAD LOCKE / NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Nine games in, it’s hard to believe Pernell McPhee is still without a sack.
Mississippi State’s senior defensive end, perhaps the top NFL prospect on the defense, led the Bulldogs last year with 5.0 sacks and was expected to hound quarterbacks this season.
There are good reasons why he’s been shut out, though.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz pointed to a couple of things: McPhee’s having to fend off more blockers, and he’s often the only one getting near the QB. Diaz thinks it’s more the latter than the former.
“I don’t see it as a protection thing, where people are not letting Pernell sack the quarterback,” Diaz said Monday at MSU’s weekly press conference. “We try to stress that we’re all depending on each other in this deal, that when Pernell beats his man and gets back there, if the other three guys don’t have a great rush going, the quarterback will always have an escape route.”
The No. 17-ranked Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2 SEC), who visit No. 11 Alabama (7-2, 4-2) this weekend, have gotten better at making quarterbacks feel the heat. After a slow start, they’ve recorded 19 sacks, tied for seventh in the SEC.
After five sacks over its first four games, MSU has 14 over the past five.
Linebacker Chris White has a team-high 5.0 sacks, while interior linemen Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox have 2.5 apiece. Even reserve defensive end Shane McCardell has a couple.
Much of the credit for that goes to McPhee, who leads the team with nine quarterback hurries. Diaz said McPhee has “caused sacks” this season.
“It’s a game where sometimes it’s hard to evaluate the effort guys all by their stats,” Diaz said. “But I think we’re happy with the level he’s playing at.”
• MSU has had its share of injuries, but it’s fairly healthy coming off the bye week. A chance to rest physically was a huge deal after playing nine consecutive weeks without a break.
“One of our key points (last week) was to take care of our bodies,” left tackle Derek Sherrod said.
The offensive line in particular needed some down time. Center J.C. Brignone isn’t far removed from a sprained knee that cost him a game-and-a-half; guard Tobias Smith has battled a shoulder injury; and guard Quentin Saulsberry had a back issue.
Last week’s on-field work was mostly about fundamentals, and several of the linemen did mostly individual drills.
“It was a wear-down that last week was a good chance to get some rest and get healed up and get ready for a three-game season,” offensive line coach John Hevesy said.
• Not only will MSU’s players have the late Nick Bell on their minds and hearts this weekend, they’ll have him on their jerseys in the form of a commemorative patch, Mullen said Monday. He also said a player will wear Bell’s No. 36 each game, although he has not yet announced who the player or players will be.
As for the emotional ride of last week and how it might affect the Bulldogs on Saturday, Mullen doesn’t foresee drawing much motivation from Bell’s memory.
“In a situation like that, I don’t know how it becomes motivating to anybody,” he said, “except for the fact of learning lessons maybe Nick taught you in life and trying to live your life to the fullest. But I don’t know how that would really directly pertain to playing one single football game.”
• The last time Alabama and MSU were both in the rankings when facing each other was 1999, when the Tide was No. 11 and the Bulldogs No. 8 with an 8-0 mark. Bama won, 19-7, in Tuscaloosa. … Over its last four games, MSU has forced 12 turnovers (six interceptions, six fumbles) while giving up only one. Its plus-7 turnover margin for the season is tied with Alabama and Georgia for the SEC lead. … MSU has converted 52 percent of its third-down conversions in the second half, compared to 40 percent in the first half.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.