Greetings, peeps! As promised, here's Part 2: The Defenses of my Liberty Bowl Preview has arrived. Let's dive right in.
MSU: State will bring a base 4-3 defense to Memphis. The Dawgs also employ a nickel package situationally, but generally prefer to stay in the base 4-3. DC Geoff Collins reinvigorated a defense that saw a dramatic drop in production last season by bringing in an aggressive approach centering around the creation of "Mayhem." The invention of "Juice Points" this offseason brought back an energy and excitement missing from the D the past couple seasons.
Rice: The Owls prefer to work out of a base 4-2-5 D. Many State fans will remember the look as similar to the one Joe Lee Dunn employed during his tenure in Starkville. Rice likes to put their CBs on an island in man and bring pressure. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
MSU: The Dawgs finished 48th nationally in Rush D, giving up 1,813 yards on the ground and 16 rush TDs. Opponents averaged 151.1 YPG.
Rice: The Owls weren't far behind, finishing 55th nationally. They gave up 2,020 yards and 17 rush TDs. Opponents averaged 155.4 YPG.
MSU: The Dawgs were 33rd nationally in Pass D, giving up 2,583 yards and 18 pass TDs. Opponents completed 62.4% of their passes against State and averaged 215.3 YPG. State also picked off 14 passes.
Rice: The Owls were one of the stingiest Pass D's in the country, finishing 13th nationally. They gave up 2,544 yards and 18 pass TDs. However, opponents completed just 51% of their passes against Rice and only averaged 195.7 YPG. Rice tied State with 14 INTs on the year.
Edge: Rice. While the total numbers are close, the difference in Completion Percentage and YPG tip the scales for me.
Total D & Turnover Margin:
MSU: State finished the year 33rd in Total D, giving up 4,396 yards and 35 TDs. Opponents averaged 366.3 YPG. The Dawgs were +7 in the year in TO margin.
Rice: Rice finished 24th nationally, giving up 4,564 yards and 37 TDs. Opponents averaged 351.1 YPG. The Owls were also +7 this season in TO margin.
Edge: MSU. It's a homer pick, admittedly. But I think the quality of offensive opponents State faced compared to the opponents Rice faced skew the stats. State played OK State, Bowling Green, Troy, aTm, SCar, and Auburn among others. Rice played aTm, but that's about it.
MSU: The Dawgs were 40th nationally in scoring D this season. As noted above, opponents cashed in 35 TDs against State. They wound up averaging 24.3 PPG.
Rice: The Owls finished 32nd nationally in scoring D. As I pointed out above, opponents managed to punch in 37 TDs against Rice. They averaged 22.9 PPG.
Edge: I'll once again be the home and take MSU. I find it interesting Rice had a better Scoring D but gave up more TDs.
MSU: State will rotate 4 DEs over the course of the game. The starters are Preston Smith & Denico Autry. They'll be backed up by Ryan Brown & AJ Jefferson. On the whole, this group hasn't generated many sacks, but they have gotten good pressure. Preston Smith has particularly impressed WMD. He seems to play sideline-to-sideline. Methinks he's got an NFL future ahead of him. Smith has compiled 38 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 8 QBH, and 1 FF.
Rice: The Owls starting DEs are Cody Bauer & Tanner Leland. Bauer is slightly bigger at 6'4", 250. They'll be backed up by Grant Peterson & Zach Patt. Bauer has arguably been one of the 3 best players on the Rice D this season. He's racked up 34 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 4 QBH, and 1 FF.
Edge: MSU. All 4 of the Dawg DEs have produced this season, although none have really been what WMD would term spectacular. But I grade hard.
MSU: The Dawgs will use 5-6 DTs throughout the course of the game. The starters are Chris Jones, PJ Jones, and Kaleb Eulls. They'll be backed up by Curtis Virges and Nelson Adams. This is a BIG group, averaging 300 LBs across the board. The star of this group has been true freshman Chris Jones. He's shown this season why he was ranked the #2 overall prospect in the country last year. He's bulked up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 LBs, but he's still extremely fast and athletic. Opposing teams spent a lot of time trying to double team him. Even with that, he wound up with 31 tackles, 7 TFLs, 3 sacks, and 10 QBH. He also became one of WMD's all-time favorite Dawgs for throwing up the landshark symbol during the Egg Bowl and stuffing Kimdeechee in his tracks.
Rice: Rice will play with 3 DTs. Their starters are Christian Covington & Stuart Mouchantaf. They'll be backed up by Ross Winship. This group has solid size at 290, 295, and 290. The standout here has been Covington. He's amassed 51 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 FF, and 1 blocked kick. That's beastly.
Edge: MSU. The production here is relatively even, but State's depth and size tips the scales. (See what I did there?)
MSU: This group may be the strength of the MSU D. The starters are Benardrick McKinney, Deontae Skinner, and Matt Wells. They're backed up by Richie Brown, Beniquez Brown, and Zach Jackson. McKinney is a freak of nature in the middle. A freshman All-American last season, he picked up where he left off last season. He only had 70 tackles this season, but that was mostly due to how much State rotates the LBs. But those 70 tackles still led the team. Skinner moved into the box this season, which is his more natural spot. He's been a very good run stopping LB and is second on the team in tackles with 61 tackles. Matt Wells took over as a first year starter for the departing Cam Lawrence. Wells is a hybrid S/LB and possibly the fastest player on the team, having been timed at 4.3 in the 40. He's excelled in pass coverage and racked up 49 tackles. The Browns & Jackson have been good for providing depth, but Beni Brown has been particularly outstanding.
Rice: LB may be the weak spot of the Owls D. The starters are James Radcliffe and Michael Kutzler. They're backed up by Alex Lyons and Nick Elder. Kutzler led the teams in tackles with 86. Radcliffe is 4th with 58. Most of this group is in the 6'2", 220 mold with speed. It'll be interesting to see how they perform stuffing the run inside.
Edge: MSU. The Dawgs are big, fast, and deep at LB. There isn't a significant drop between the 1st & 2nd team.
MSU: The Dawgs were young and inexperienced at CB to start the season. But these guys worked hard and were a solid group the last few games of the season. Jamerson Love was the cornerstone, and State struggled early when he missed time with injuries. State got a boost when Will Redmond returned from a ridiculous 18-game suspension. (Thanks, Bracky!) Taveze Calhoun may have been the best of this group by the end of the season, showing Dawg fans why Johnthan Banks said Calhoun would be the next great Bulldog CB. Cedric Jiles will also see some work at CB.
Rice: Here lies the strength of the Rice D. The two starters are Bryce Callahan and Phillip Gaines. They are as good a tandem as you'll find. They've been lockdown defenders on the outside and likely have NFL careers ahead of them. Gaines is one of the bigger corners we're starting to see at the position at 6'1". Callahan is more of your traditional CB checking in at 5'9". They're backed up by Anthony Canady and Ryan Pollard.
Edge: Rice. State has 3 really good CBs in Love, Calhoun, and Redmond. But Gaines and Callahan are as good or better. It'll be interesting to see how they match up against Tubby, RoJo and Bear Wilson.
MSU: This is an area of concern for the Dawgs. We'll be without Nickoe Whitley, a 4-year starter and bonafide NFL prospect. After rupturing his Achilles' two years ago, Whitley played most of this season on a partially torn ACL. He had surgery after the Egg Bowl. No one is entirely sure who will replace him, but the odds-on favorite is Justin Cox. Cox was a CB for the Dawgs this year, but was an All-American S in JUCO. The one starter we're sure of is Kendrick Market. Market won the job after Jay Hughes went down to an Achilles' injury in the season opener. He's been very good for the Dawgs this year, amassing 60 tackles, which is 3rd on the team. Depth is an issue here as State is missing 3 players: The aforementioned Whitley and Hughes, but also Dee Arrington. An injury to Market or Cox would be catastrophic.
Rice: The Owls employ 3 safeties, one of which is a hybrid S/LB. The traditional safeties are Malcolm Hill & Julius White. The KAT safety (think Dog Safety) is Paul Porras. Porras has been very good this season, finishing 2nd on the team in tackles with 76. White was 3rd with 59 tackles. These guys are backed by Gabe Baker, Garrett Fuhrman, and Jaylon Finner. Look for Porras to play up near the LOS as a run stopper and blitzer.
Edge: Rice. Due to the injuries and uncertainty of who replaces Whitley, I can't in good conscience give State the nod. However, I do think Market is as good as any of the Rice safeties.
MSU: The Dawgs will punt with Devon Bell & Baker Swedenburg. Swedenburg began the year as the starter and was a Ray Guy Semifinalist. About halfway through the season, he began to split time with Bell when Bell was demoted as K. Swedenburg gets insane hangtime and rarely allows return yards. He averages 42.5 YPP. Bell has the stronger leg and impressive hangtime in his own right. He's boomed one for 62 yards and pinned the opponent inside the 20 13 times. He averages 41.7 YPP.
Rice: James Farrimond will handle the punting duties for Rice. He's a very good punter with a strong leg, having crushed one 66 yards this season. Farrimond has pinned opponents inside the 20 14 times and averages 42.4 YPP.
Edge: Push. The numbers are pretty much even for both teams.
MSU: Devon Bell will handle the kickoffs for MSU. He's 23/59 on the season in TB/KO. State didn't allow a KOR TD this year.
Rice: Chris Boswell will kickoff for Rice. He's 56/77 this season in TB/KO. Like State, Rice didn't allow a KOR TD this year.
Edge: Rice. The TB/KO ration is very impressive, insuring opponents start at the 25 the vast majority of the time.
WMD's Thoughts: MSU has a size advantage on D. Rice is VERY impressive in the secondary. It'll be fun to see an aggressive 4-2-5 defense again and see the contrast of styles. Special teams is a slight edge to Rice, as they have the better KO team. I wouldn't expect any big returns from either team.
Overall Edge: MSU. I give State the edge based on our front 7. That group is big, physical, and nasty. They're battle tested against the nastiest OLs in the country, although Rice is no slouch up front. Still, the overall depth of that group is impressive and ensures they stay fresh over the course of 4 quarters. MSU is banged up badly at S, but I'm comfortable with the Dawg CBs against the Rice WRs.
That's how I see it. Feel free to add your thoughts/comments. Fire in the hole!