2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar. Previously: NCAA rankings, Defense vs. Auburn, Screen defense, Jumping the Screen, Offense vs. Auburn, Defending Mississippi State's option
I had a chance to watch the Mississippi State game against LSU. Here are the various things I learned:
Mississippi State continued to show an unsound defense against 3x1 formations. Example 1:
Through the two games I've watched--against LSU and Auburn--it's becoming obvious why there's such a disparity between the Bulldogs' rushing defense (20th) and passing efficiency defense (50th, 89th by yardage): they gamble against the pass in order to stop the run. Formations like this leave them vulnerable to various different passing attacks. However, their stats are in keeping with a high-blitzing team. They allow teams to complete just under 60% of their passes because of the pressure put on quarterbacks, but they allow a significant amount of yards when passes are completed. Michigan's screen and quick passing game have the potential to crush this defense.
Mississippi State offensive line
Despite much consternation in the comments section of an earlier post, the Mississippi State offensive line once again looked vulnerable against four-man rushes. It's difficult to quantify how bad/good the offensive line is because of the level of competition. LSU and Auburn both boast good-to-great defensive lines, so any criticism of the Bulldogs' front line should be taken with a grain of salt. Repeatedly, however, their offensive line was put on skates and pushed into the backfield. Their sack and TFL numbers seem to agree: 52nd in sacks allowed and 70th in TFLs allowed. It's safe to say that both of those numbers are probably a little inflated because of Chris Relf's size and scrambling ability. Their offensive line looks to be a liability.
Michigan went primarily to a four-man front against Ohio State and I expect them to return to it against Mississippi State. Though the final score against OSU disagrees, the defensive front was pretty effective especially in the first quarter when they completely shut down the Buckeyes attack. Coming into this season, Michigan's defensive line was predicted to be far and away its strongest unit. With Roh's move back to defensive end rather than linebacker, that prediction should come true. The season's final game against Mississippi State should be a chance to prove it.
Red zone blitzing
If Michigan's inability to kick field goals hasn't hurt them enough this year already, it'll come back to bite them in the bowl game. Repeatedly, LSU drove the ball into the red zone only to stall out because of negative plays or a compressed field. I don't know if it's because of more conservative playcalling on the Bulldogs' behalf that slowed the attack or just the opposite, but LSU kicked five field goals in this game because they were unable to move the ball beyond the 20 yard line. Whether or not that's LSU offensive incompetence (Michigan's offense is light years better than LSU's, especially this early in the season) or should be credited to a sound defensive gameplan is difficult to determine. But the end results were the same: field goal attempts. Michigan will miss at least one field goal in the Gator Bowl.
What does it mean?
Watching Mississippi State's defensive alignments in these two games leaves me more and more confident that Michigan's offense will be able to move the ball easily through the air. This should eventually slow down the Bulldogs' blitzing, leaving room for Denard to break a couple of runs. The point being, Michigan is going to be a pass-first team against MSU. Unfortunately, those blitzes will kill a number of Michigan's drives in the game, possibly through missed field goals or forcing punts. Michigan's ability to exploit a team's aggressiveness is going to pay dividends.
On the other side of the ball, Mississippi State is going to have to live and die by Chris Relf, specifically his passing ability. I've been pretty underwhelmed by the Bulldog offensive line, and a four-man front of Roh-Martin-Van Bergen-Banks should be able to make hay. Whether or not Michigan's linebackers can react to and attack the Bulldogs option running game will be the key, but if the improvements of Kenny Demens are for real and Jonas Mouton is healthy, I feel confident that Michigan should be able to slow the Mississippi State running game, forcing Relf to put the ball in the air.