On Monday, the Mississippi State Bulldogs will be playing with heavy hearts after the tragic passing of head coach Mike Leach. The legendary coach’s death has overshadowed the ReliaQuest Bowl between Mississippi State and Illinois.
For Mississippi State, defensive coordinator Zach Arnett has been named head coach and has helped stabilize the program. A Bulldogs victory in the bowl game would commemorate Coach Leach and celebrate his legacy. It will also usher in a new era of Mississippi Football under Coach Arnett.
While other TCR writers will further preview the Illini, it’s important to discuss something Coach Leach was less known for: the Mississippi State Defense.
What MSU will look like
As Mike Leach’s teams typically do, Mississippi State has beaten opponents with its high-scoring Air Raid offense. But their defense cannot be underestimated, as it was effective at slowing teams down and creating turnovers.
Under Arnett, the Bulldogs run a unique defense using the 3-3-5 system. This consists of three defensive linemen, three linebackers behind them, and five defensive backs. Compared to other schemes, this system only brings 6 men to the box, and it focuses on stopping the pass. It is a flexible system allowing for quick implementations of blitz or dropping a man into coverage.
Mississippi State ranks 45th in the nation in total defense. Their 3-3-5 system creates opportunities for big plays in the run game. Teams this season have exposed this flaw as the Bulldogs have allowed 143 rush yards per game. With Chase Brown sitting out against MSU, Illinois will struggle to expose this flaw. The Illinois offensive line has also struggled to create movement against the top teams in the Big Ten.
Mississippi State will adjust its defensive scheme to blitz using linebackers and defensive backs. This will force Illinois into passing situations, which they have struggled to convert all season long.
The Bulldog defense is a bend-but-don’t-break unit. They will allow the opposing team to score points, but in crucial moments, they use their unique defensive scheme to confuse the opposing quarterback and create turnovers.
Mike Leach called sitting out of bowl games “one of the biggest absurdities that I’ve seen” and a “selfish” act. It seems like Mississippi State has taken up this message, as they expect to have all players available.
All-American cornerback Emmanuel Forbes leads the Mississippi State defense. He has declared for the NFL Draft but has been practicing. Forbes is a ball hawk, as earlier this season, he set the NCAA record for pick-sixes in a career. He has had a total of 14 interceptions throughout his career, and Tommy DeVito will try to not throw the ball in his direction as much as possible.
Linebackers Nathaniel Watson and Jett Johnson rank 1st and 3rd respectively for most tackles in the SEC. Both are tackling machines that will oversee slowing down Illinois’ depleted run game. Other members of the Bulldogs’ backfield include cornerback Decamerion Richardson (78 tackles) and safety Collin Duncan (54 tackles). They will use their athleticism to slow down the Illini receivers.
Linebacker Tyrus Wheat has had 6 sacks, which is the most among the Bulldogs. Getting pressure on Tommy DeVito will be crucial for the Bulldogs, especially in passing situations.
What to expect
The Mississippi State defense is an experienced group that poses a challenge to a depleted Illinois offense. Top players on both sides of the ball, including Sydney Brown, Chase Brown and Devin Witherspoon, are sitting out for the NFL Draft.
For the coaching staff, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and two assistants have departed for Purdue. This game allows for an inexperienced coaching staff and players to prove themselves on a national stage.
The Illini have not beaten a team as well-rounded as Mississippi State this season. Especially without Chase Brown, the Illini offensive will struggle to move the ball. The lackluster Illini passing game will need to step up, which they haven’t done so far this season.
The Illini will need to stick to their run game and hope to wear down the Mississippi State defense.