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Battle for the Golden Egg Preview: Defense

Evaluating the 2015 Defenses and Related Special Teams

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Peeps, the 2015 Battle for the Golden Egg is one of the biggest in recent memory. Not only are the standard bragging rights on the line, but SEC standings, potential SEC West title implications, and bowl positioning are all in play. It's looking more and more likely the winner of this year's Battle for the Golden Egg will be making a trip to New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl, assuming Florida loses their next two games against FSU and Bama. So without further rambling, here is our position-by-position look at both the Mississippi State and Northern Miss defenses.

Defensive Line:

MSU: State will start Ryan Brown, Chris Jones, Nick James, and AJ Jefferson up front. They will be followed by Johnathan Calvin, Will Coleman, Nelson Adams, Torrey Dale, and Cory Thomas.

Jefferson leads the Dawgs' DL in tackles with 34.5, 13.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 3 PBU, and 1 forced fumble. Chris Jones is next with 26 tackles, 7 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 2 PBU. Ryan Brown is just behind with 24 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 4 PBU.

Jonathan Calvin has blossomed the last few games after going through the JUCO adjustment period. He enters the game with 19 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks. Everyone else has fewer than 15 tackles for the season.

A quick look at advanced stats shows a DL Havoc Rate of 6.7%. The national average is 5.1%. That puts State's DL at 29th nationally. For those wondering, havoc is the percentage of plays a defense records a TFL, forced a fumble, or defended (intercepted or broke up) a pass. QB hurries aren't measured because they aren't measured and recorded consistently at the college level.

Northern Miss: The Black Bears will start Fadol Brown, Robert Nkemdiche, Woodrow Hamilton, and Marquis Haynes. They will be replaced by Channing Ward, DJ Jones, Breeland Speaks, and John Youngblood.

Haynes leads the Black Bear DL with 31.5 tackles, 13 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, 2 PBU, and 3 FF. Fadol Brown is second with 23.5 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 1 sack. Channing Ward is next with 23 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 PBU and 1 FF.

For those wondering, the much overhyped Robert Nkemdiche is sixth among their linemen with just 18.5 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, and 2 PBU.

Advanced stats show the Northern Miss DL with a Havoc Rate of 6.1%. That is good for 39th nationally.

Edge: Push - State's DL has outproduced the much vaunted Northern Miss DL. They're .6% better at creating havoc and rank 10 spots better. But the Northern Miss DL has a depth edge and more players with a significant number of tackles. The bottom line is that both units are really good. There's also some schematic differences that account for the discrepancy, as Northern Miss has their OL penetrate upfield more often which allows them more opportunities to make tackles.

Linebackers:

State: The Dawgs will start the trio of Beniquez Brown, Richie Brown, and Zach Jackson. They will be spelled by Gerri Green, JT Gray, and Deandre Ward. Dez Harris was a significant contributor but blew out an ACL for the third consecutive year.

Richie Brown has 65.5 tackles, which leads the State D. He also has 9.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT, and 1 PBU. Beni Brown is second on the team in tackles with 60, 8.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 INT, and 2 PBU. JT Gray is third among LBs with 34 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, and a half sack.

Zach Jackson is next with 32 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, and 2 PBU. Gerri Green has 31.5 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 INT, and 1 PBU. No other LB has more than 10 tackles.

State's LBs have a Havoc Rate of 4.5%. The national average is 4.5%. This places them 59th.

Northern Miss: The Black Bears will start DeMarquis Gates and CJ Johnson at LB. Denzel Nkemdiche was starting alongside Johnson before a medical issue forced him into the ICU late last week. The Bear backups are Tayler Polk, Christian Russell and Terry Caldwell.

Gates leads the Northern Miss D in tackles with 50. He also has 2 TFL, 4 PBU, and 1 FF. Denzel Kimdeechee was second among Bear LBs with 44.5 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, .5 sack, and 1 PBU. Johnson is third with 27.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 FF, and 1 FR.

Christian Russell is next with 23 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 1 INT.

The Northern Miss LBs have a 3.5% Havoc Rate and rank 88th nationally.

EDGE: State - The Dawgs LBs are among the elite units in the SEC. The Brown "Brothers" are putting up big numbers and making lots of plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Cornerbacks:

State: The Dawgs will start Taveze Calhoun and Tolando Cleveland. They'll be relieved by Cedric Jiles and Jamoral "Smokey" Graham. Will Redmond was starting ahead of Cleveland but has been ruled out for the season after tearing an ACL. That was a HUGE blow to State's secondary, as Mel Kiper Jr. had Redmond rated as the best SR CB in the nation.

Calhoun entered the season as half of what was arguably the best pair of tandem CBs in the SEC. He leads State's CBs with 29 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2 INT, and 7 PBU. Cleveland is second with 28 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 2 PBU, and 1 FF. Smokey is third with 16.5 tackles and 1 TFL. Not bad considering he just moved to CB in the spring.

Redmond would have been higher with 21.5 tackles, 2 INT, and 1 PBU before going out to injury. Jiles has 9 tackles and 3 PBU.

Northern Miss: The Black Bears will start Kendarious Webster and Tony Bridges. Starter Mike Hilton has moved to safety due to an injury to Tony Conner. Webster and Bridges will be backed up by Carlos Davis and Kailo Moore.

With Hilton now at safety, Bridges leads the Bears' CBs with 27.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INT, and 6 PBU. Webster has 27 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 INT, and 9 PBU. Davis is third with 17.5 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 PBU.

Edge: State - State's CBs have been hurt by injuries. They still have the best CB on the field with Calhoun, but Cleveland was exposed the last couple of weeks. Hilton was very good for Northern Miss, but he had to move. Injuries have likewise hurt the Bears depth. Neither team is great here, but I take State because of Calhoun and slightly better depth.

Safety:

State: The Dawgs will start Kivon Coman and Brandon Bryant. They will be backed up by Jamal Peters and Mark McLaurin. Kendrick Market was starting but was lost for the season to an ACL tear.

Coman is third on the team with 52 tackles, 4 TFL, .5 sack, 1 INT, and 6 PBU. Bryant is second with 40.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT, 3 PBU, and 1 FF. Jamaal Peters is next among active safeties with 14 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 sack, and 2 PBU.

McLaurin has 11 tackles and 3 PBU. Market would have been third among safeties with 18 tackles when he went down.

Advanced stats show the national Havoc Rate for DBs is 6.4%. State's DBs have a 6.9% havoc rate, which places them 47th nationally.

Northern Miss: The Bears will start Trae Elston, CJ Hampton, and Mike Hilton. If Tony Conner is good to go, look for him to start and for Hilton to be at CB. This group will be backed up by CJ Moore, Chief Brown, AJ Moore, and Zedrick Woods.

Easton leads the Bear safeties with 49 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 4 INT, and 10 PBU. Hilton is second with 47 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT, 10 PBU, and 1 FF. Hampton is next with 22 tackles and 1 PBU.

AJ Moore is the best of the reserves with 17.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, and 2 FF. Zedrick Woods is right behind with 16.5 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 INT. Conner has just 12.5 tackles but 4 TFLs in an injury-plagued JR campaign.

The Northern Miss DBs have a Havoc Rate of 9.4%. That places them 6th nationally.

Edge: Northern Miss - State has gotten much better safety play this season. Kivon Coman has stepped up and been steady, while young Pups Brandon Bryant, Jamal Peters, and Mark McLaurin have really stepped up. Bryant has been the Dawgs' best S this year. But Northern Miss is deeper and creates more big plays. They've also got a truly elite S in Conner, if he's able to go. If I could take one guy from their D, he's the guy I would want and it isn't close.

Coaching/Scheme:

State: Manny Diaz leads what has been a salty D for the Dawgs in 2015. Last week's performance against Arkansas was an anomaly. State operates out of a base 4-3 D, but you will see plenty of Nickel and 3-3-5 looks used situationally. Diaz loves to dial up exotic blitzes. He lets his LBs play downhill and really attack.

State ranks 58th nationally in Total D, having given up 4,182 yards. State's D gives up 380 YPG. Broken down even further, the Dawgs allow 215 pass YPG (52nd nationally) and 165.2 rush YPG (62nd nationally). But points is what really matters, and that is where State excels. The Dawgs allow just 21.5 PPG, a number inflated by the 50 given up to the Hogs last week. That 21.5 PPG puts State 31st nationally.

Taking a quick look at advanced stats, the Overall Havoc Rate for defenses nationally is 16.2%. State's Overall Havoc Rate is 18.2%. That ranks them 33rd nationally. Stuff Rate measures how often rushing attempts are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, i.e. "stuffed." Since we know a Stuff is bad for the offense and good for the D, let's take a quick peak. The national average for Stuff Rate is 19.5%. The State D has a Stuff Rate of 22.5%, placing them 37th nationally.

Northern Miss: Dave Wommack is in charge of the Black Bear D. The Bears run a base 4-2-5 D, but you'll see a little bit of 4-3 from them situationally. They like to let their DL penetrate upfield more often than State and have their LBs read and react. They use a hybrid LB/S. Tony Conner normally fills that role.

Northern Miss ranks 63rd nationally having given up 4,248 YPG. The Bear's D gives up 386 YPG. In component pieces, that's 255 pass YPG (101st) and 131 rush YPG (tied for 28th). Credit where it's due, the Bears allow just 22.5 PPG, putting them at 38th nationally.

Advanced stats show the Black Bear D with an Overall Havoc Rate of 18.9%, which is 24th nationally. They have a Stuff Rate of 22.7%, ranking them 32nd nationally.

Edge: State - It's close, but I'm going with the Dawgs. The BearShark rush D is probably a little bit better than State's, surprisingly. However, they aren't quite as good at getting a Stuff. However, they're better at creating Overall Havoc thanks mostly to their DBs. But State's passing D is much, much better overall. For me, that tips the balance to State.

Special Teams:

State: State will punt with Logan Cooke and KO with Devon Bell. Cooke has punted 37 times in 2015 for 1,554 yards, and averages 42 YPP. 18 of the 37 punts resulted in a fair catch. 15 of 37 were inside the 20, with 6 being touchbacks. Cooke also has a long punt of 65 and 11 of 50+ yards

Bell has kicked off 67 times with 27 TBs. Opponents average start is the 23 yard line.

Northern Miss: The Bears will punt with Will Gleeson and KO  with Nathan Noble. Gleeson has punted 39 times for 1,629 yards, and averages 41.8 YPP. 14 of his 39 resulted in a fair catch. 11 of 39 were inside the 20, with 2 TBs. Gleeson has a long of 62 and 4 of 50+.

Noble has kicked off 79 times with 43 TBs. Opponents average start is the 22 yard line.

Edge: Push - Both teams have excellent punters and KO units. Cooke looks to have a stronger leg than Gleeson and gets more fair catches, which suggests he's getting more hang time. Northern Miss does a slightly better job at KO.

WMD's Thoughts:

Both defenses are nasty. Neither is giving up many points. Only 3 of State's 11 opponents to date have scored more than 21 points. And of those 3, Bama scored 31, aTm scored 30, and Arkansas scored 50. Talk about an outlier. Northern Miss and State are both very hard to run against consistently. State has the edge in pass D, as Northern Miss is one of the worst in the nation at defending the pass. Chris Jones continues to outproduce Robert Nkemdiche without getting any media attention. Northern Miss does a great job of creating havoc and causing TOs, so ball security will be a must. Considering the state of both teams' pass D, particularly the last few games, I wouldn't be surprised to see both teams throw it 45+ times. It might take 4+ hours to play this game if that indeed happens. This just might come down to whoever's pass D can make one critical stop.