STARKVILLE – Mississippi State has everything it needs to create a fearsome pass rush: A big and fast defensive end, big and fast linebackers and a defensive coordinator who built his reputation on terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
After three games, though, the Bulldogs have recorded just four sacks. And that big, bad defensive end, Pernell McPhee, hasn’t dropped a QB yet.
McPhee said he’s neither surprised nor bothered by that fact.
“Instead of doing my thing I did last year, off my athleticism, now I’m just doing basic technique, like trying to use a one-hand stab, work on the game, work on my fundamentals basically,” he said. “The only reason why it’s going down like that is because I guess everybody’s still working on their fundamentals.”
So, no need to panic. That defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, said he’s seeing clear progress being made in MSU’s pass rush and isn’t worried about McPhee’s play.
“I think Pernell’s been what we’ve expected him to be – he’s been our best defensive lineman, and certainly our best outside guy,” Diaz said. “I think our pass rush is improving. I think we doubled the number of times we hit the quarterback versus LSU than we did versus Auburn.”
McPhee draws the most attention of opposing linemen, so his path to the backfield is a more difficult one. Last season, he led the team with five sacks, while MSU recorded 18 sacks in all, which ranked 11th in the SEC.
A legitimate pass rush is something State hasn’t had in years, and it’s been perhaps the defense’s biggest question mark throughout the offseason and early part of the schedule.
Coach Dan Mullen pointed out that the Bulldogs haven’t yet faced a true drop-back passer. Aaron Murray, who will lead Georgia into Starkville on Saturday, is more in that mold, and that gives the defenders confidence that the pass rush can achieve more tangible results.
Diaz struck a cautionary tone when speaking of Murray, a redshirt freshman.
“Murray has made big, big plays with his feet already in the first couple of games of the season,” Diaz said. “Either way, you still would rather have a stationary target, but to me he’s a mover. He’s got good pocket sense, move up and step up, and he’s still learning through all that.”
Murray will be the best pure passer MSU has faced so far. He’s completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 605 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
That means a greater test for MSU’s secondary, and that means a greater importance on having a strong pass rush.
“When you get to the quarterback, that’s real effective,” senior linebacker K.J. Wright said. “When you get there, he starts doing things that he don’t usually do. So just getting to the quarterback is a big, big key for us.”
Get in your licks
It’s not always about getting the quarterback on the ground. Simply forcing him to move or getting a hard hit on him can do the trick, too.
Diaz has been emphasizing that to his players. He doesn’t want them to get too caught up in sack totals.
“Sometimes you’re not going to sack them,” he said. “Sometimes the goal is to hit them. Whether he holds onto the ball a lot sometimes depends on whether you’re going to sack him or not.”
Diaz believes the sacks will come soon enough, and it’s the progress he’s seen over the first three games that give him cause to believe that.
“I think there were a couple of instances last week, I think if we just get more comfortable with our time-ups, getting going a little faster – we’ve got to come off the ball a little faster. And the kids are seeing that. That way you can show them the film and say, ‘Hey, see on this play, we hit the quarterback.’
“It might be an incomplete pass and no one notices. But now we’re hitting the quarterback, but had we gone half-a-second sooner, it’d have been a sack.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal