'We got some dogs': Mississippi State football's defense shows off bite in NC State win
STARKVILLE — Mississippi State’s defense had heard it all week.
The unit knew NC State was coming off a resounding season-opening win against South Florida, and the Bulldogs had heard all about running backs Ricky Person and Zonovan Knight rushing for a combined 268 yards.
That was the key matchup entering Saturday night’s game at Davis Wade Stadium. But after a week of hearing all about what the Wolfpack could do, the Bulldogs’ defense showed it is worth talking about, too. The defense held those same running backs to just 50 yards rushing in a dominant outing.
When Mike Leach is the coach of a team, much of the attention turns toward his air raid offense. But defensive coordinator Zach Arnett’s group powered Mississippi State’s 24-10 victory in a display that exhibited how the Bulldogs (2-0) can be driven by their defense.
“We got some dogs on defense,” safety Jalen Green said. “We played with a lot of swag and confidence. We got a lot to show.”
What that unit showed was an ability to stand tall despite inheriting a short field, force turnovers at critical junctures and pressure the quarterback. The rush defense displayed what it’s capable of doing against a dynamic one-two punch in Knight and Person.
And the 10 points allowed — including a garbage-time touchdown — were the fewest since beating Abilene Christian in 2019.
“It was a challenge for us, a huge challenge early in the season to say, what kind of defense are we going to be?” linebacker Jett Johnson said. “Are we going to be a really tough, powerful defense and stop the run and force them to throw the ball?”
The answer was yes.
Short punts from Tucker Day in the first quarter immediately put Mississippi State’s defense in short-field situations. But Green intercepted a pass in the end zone from Person in a wildcat set, the first of three turnovers the Bulldogs forced.
When quarterback Devin Leary handed the ball off, there wasn’t much room between the tackles to operate. Johnson credited the defensive line with “muddying things up” in the middle, and the pursuit from the linebackers and secondary was rapid once Person or Knight tried to bounce outside.
That forced Leary to drop back to pass more frequently; he threw the ball 23 more times than he did in NC State’s win against South Florida. He racked up 303 yards, but 163 of those came in the fourth quarter, with the game out of reach.
When Leary did drop back, the pass rush that was nearly nonexistent in Mississippi State’s win against Louisiana Tech surfaced repeatedly. Leary was sacked four times, including a 15-yard loss when Emmanuel Forbes came off a corner blitz to drag Leary down on a fourth-and-21.
“Coach challenged us to play more physical,” Green said, “and I think we showed that today.”
They showed more than physicality, though, and it resulted in a staunch defensive performance.
“We knew it was going to be a huge challenge, so we stepped up to the plate,” Johnson said. “Feel like we played well collectively as a team and as a defensive unit. So it was a good win, for sure.”