Mississippi State’s defense could charitably be called “poor” last season. It allowed 32 points and 459 yards per game. There were five games when the Bulldogs allowed 500 yards and three in which they surrendered 600 yards. They gave up 33 TD passes.
It was a symptom of a bigger problem: For all the goodwill — and success — Dan Mullen has brought to Starkville, he never truly had a stifling defense. Yes, coordinators Manny Diaz and Geoff Collins had their moments, but they were among six different DCs Mullen had before he turned to Todd Grantham this season.
The move has been a master stroke. Grantham’s unit ranks seventh nationally in total defense (289.3 ypg) and 14th in scoring defense (18.0 ppg). The Bulldogs have allowed 400 yards just twice and only Auburn has hit 500 yards.
Most thought Grantham could make a difference, but few saw this big a turnaround coming.
The unit gets a huge test Saturday when Alabama and its powerful running game comes to town. The Tide averages 278.4 rushing yards per game. The Bulldogs rank 23rd against the run (124.1 ypg), but in their two losses, MSU gave up a total of 447 rushing yards to Auburn and Georgia; that is 40 percent of the total the Bulldogs have allowed this season.
Still, Grantham’s work has grabbed the attention of Nick Saban, who said on the SEC coaches’ teleconference that the game “is going to be a real challenge for us, as Grantham’s vastly improved their defense.”
To an extent, that is just Saban coach-speak, but when you look at the numbers, he does have a point. Bulldogs opponents have had a tough time finding room to run, and if you take away the road losses to Georgia and Auburn, Mississippi State is giving up just under three yards per carry on the year.
Mississippi State will need to maintain that stat if it wants any shot at the upset Saturday.
Of course, Alabama is more like Auburn and Georgia than Texas A&M and Kentucky, which combined for 211 rushing yards against Mississippi State. The Tide averages 6.1 yards per carry.
Alabama has won nine in a row in the series, and Mullen is 0-8 against the Tide. The average score in those eight matchups: 31-8, and MSU has reached double figures in points just twice.
The most one-sided game was last season, when the Tide rolled up 615 yards in bludgeoning the Bulldogs 51-3.
But Grantham has this season’s defense playing at a high level and setting a tone. The defense needs to again set the tone if State is to have a chance against Alabama. Montez Sweat, Jeffery Simmons and the rest of the Bulldogs’ front seven must stop the Alabama running game but also live in the back pocket of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts on passing downs.
If Mississippi State’s defense can make life tough on this Alabama offense, the Bulldogs will have a chance.
When is the last time a Bulldogs fan could say that and feel at least somewhat confident it could happen?
(You can follow Jake Wimberly on Twitter @jakewim)
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