Facing nation's top offense, Mississippi State defense has chance to prove itself

·3 min read

Sep. 16—STARKVILLE — Emmanuel Forbes makes opposing players feel every tackle.

Tyrus Wheat seems to always be near the ball.

Jaden Crumedy or Cameron Young stuff the middle while some combination of De'Monte Russell, Jack Harris, Aaron Odom and Randy Charlton meets the quarterback around the edge.

Jalen Green can stay back and close a deep threat, but the moment the ball finds an opposing receiver, he's there to jump on a fumble or relieve a missed tackle.

Martin Emerson, well, teams just don't look his way.

Mississippi State's defense has playmakers at every level, and except for a few rough stretches against Louisiana Tech, it's a unit that has shined.

Saturday against Memphis — the nation's top offense in terms of yardage — State will have a chance to gauge just how good that defense is before the schedule turns to SEC play.

"They win the line of scrimmage," MSU defensive coordinator Zach Arnett said of Memphis. "You can tell that's a program that understands the more physical you are, the more aggressive you are, typically the better results it leads to.

"They've got great speed on the outside. They can throw the ball. Their quarterback is playing phenomenal. You look at their o-line and running backs — they are running people off the ball, dividing the defense and hitting huge seams."

Pro Football Focus grades Arnett's unit as the No. 25 defense in the nation. It's the No. 12 tackling defense and No. 14 in coverage, but it hasn't faced an offense as multi-dimensional as Memphis.

The expectations were lower than recent years for Memphis due to uncertainty at quarterback, but true freshman Seth Henigan has done more than an ample job of filling in.

"He don't play like a freshman," Arnett said.

Henigan in No. 9 in the nation in passing yards (682), tied-No. 7 in passing touchdowns (6) and No. 9 in yards per pass attempt (105.).

He's aggressive, but most importantly for a freshman, he doesn't make mistakes.

Henigan hasn't thrown an interception this season, and behind redshirt freshman running back Brandon Thomas, has helped created a serious challenge for Mississippi State this weekend.

"No. 1 offense in the country — obviously you don't expect that from someone being led by a true freshman," Arnett said. "But he's doing it, so the proof is in the pudding. The guy is a helluva player."

During Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference, Mike Leach touched on how MSU has been able to open the playbook more with Will Rogers as a sophomore opposed to last season.

For Memphis, it appears Ryan Silverfield and his staff have been able to open things up early in Henigan's career.

A sturdy offensive line has anchored the operation, but athleticism on the outside has made it explosive.

Redshirt senior Calvin Austin III averages 23.8 yards per catch despite being the shortest receiver on the team. Tight end Sean Dykes has 10 catches for 148 yards. Javon Ivory — a 6-foot-2-inch receiver — adds another 20 yards per catch.

"Every guy out there looks to me to have elite speed," Arnett said. "When you're in zone coverage, you've gotta do a good job of staying on top of routes and not getting run by. In man coverage, you're gonna get in some foot races. We gotta do a good job of getting pressure and not allowing the ball to be held on for a long time."

MSU will rely on disguising plays like it did against N.C. State to generate pressure not just with players such as Charlton and Harris but with Forbes too.

Saturday will require linebackers such as Aaron Brule to compete against tight ends and running backs but also to get into the backfield and rattle the true freshman under center.

It'll require a near-perfect game from Arnett on the sidelines and even better execution from those on the field.

"On every single play," Arnett says, "if you want to play good defense, it takes all 11 guys."

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