By Brad Locke | NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – When Mississippi State meets Wake Forest on Dec. 30 in the Music City Bowl, the offense’s task will be simple:
“We’ve got to put a helmet on them.”
Those are the words of MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning, and as he pointed out, the Demon Deacons have linemen and linebackers that are within 20 to 30 pounds of each other. Koenning singled out nose guard Nikita Whitlock, who checks in at 5-foot-11, 260 pounds.
Whitlock is fourth on the team in tackles (58), first in tackles-for-loss (12.5) and second in sacks (3.0).
“We’ve got to get a helmet on him,” Koenning said. “We don’t get a helmet on him, it’s going to be a bad deal. But if we can get a helmet on him, we feel like we can match up.”
Quarterback Chris Relf said Wake has speed up front and in the secondary, which is where free safety Josh Bush and cornerback Merrill Noel reside. Bush, a senior, has six interceptions – second-most in the ACC. Noel is a freshman who was named ACC defensive rookie of the year, and he has a league-leading 20 passes defended and 19 pass break-ups.
As a team, though, the Deacons are just so-so against the pass, giving up 236.2 yards per game. That pass defense has been one reason Wake has had so much trouble holding double-digit leads this season.
Four times the Deacons have lost such leads, and three of those collapses ended in losses.
“Part of it’s being young,” head coach Jim Grobe said. “Part of it’s being not strong enough defensively at times to close people out. I don’t think any question playing good teams had something to do with that also.”
Wake Forest gives up 162.9 yards per game on the ground, while MSU averages 168.8 yards of rushing offense. The 6-4, 240-pound Relf could be a handful for the Deacs, just as he was last time he played.
Beating the blitz
Against Ole Miss on Nov. 26, Relf ran early and often, finishing with 49 yards. Tailback Vick Ballard had 144 yards, and his tough running will also test Wake’s ability to be physical for four quarters.
Running well should help MSU offset Wake’s blitzing scheme.
“They give you a lot of different looks on defense,” State coach Dan Mullen said. “They’re not big defensive players, but they blitz all over the place, they’re always moving around constantly and coming from every different direction possible.”
Just have to put a helmet on them.
“We can’t go whiffing people,” Koenning said. “We do that, we’re in bad shape now.”