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2017 TaxSlayer Bowl Opponent Breakdown: Mississippi State Defense

Louisville will miss the opportunity at a “revenge” game against Todd Grantham as he is moving on to Florida with Dan Mullen.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville fans typically have mixed feelings towards Todd Grantham but most learned this year that he wasn’t nearly as bad as the complaints about him made it seem. Gratham blitzed too often and it burned his defense a lot. But, the idea that his defense was bad on third downs was a myth. His defenses were also very good in pretty much any metric you could find.

This year Grantham was able to take a defense that performed very poorly under Peter Sirmon and turned them into a strong unit. Grantham had some help from new guys that were brought in from JUCO but he was also much better at utilizing the four and five star talent that he inherited. Those same guys that had a poor season a year ago helped the Bulldogs dominate some good offenses as well as hold their own against some really good ones.

Montez Sweat is a good example of one of the guys Grantham was able to take advantage of as a new member of the defense. Sweat led the SEC in sacks this year with 9.5. He manned the rush end/OLB spot that Grantham’s system needs to be successful. He’s also the prototype for a pass rusher at 6-6 and 240 pounds. MSU will likely use him as a constant pass rusher like NC State used Bradley Chubb in hopes that Lamar Jackson will get uncomfortable and make some mistakes.

The best player on the Bulldog defense is former five star Jeffery Simmons. Simmons was the 18th ranked player in the 2016 class but didn’t see the field all that much in his first year. That changed in his second year as he became a ridiculously disruptive force at nose guard. Simmons plays with a high motor and he can make plays once he gets through the line. That’s what sets him apart in my opinion. It’s one thing to beat a double team or beat your man. When you can also make the play, you can become a big player for your defense.

I don’t know that MSU will blitz as often with Grantham not calling the plays but I do think that the plan will be to use Simmons to crash the pocket while Sweat rushes from the outside. Clemson had success with that plan and the Bulldogs actually have the players that could at least try to do the same.

The group of linebackers for MSU are really good and pretty deep. Errol Thompson was a pretty highly rated middle linebacker out of high school that Grantham recruited to Louisville. Leo Lewis was the top rated inside linebacker in his class and Willie Gay was the third ranked outside linebacker in the class last season. The talent is obviously there and they have some experienced players who get some snaps, too. I don’t know that these guys can stop a guy like Lamar Jackson but they are definitely have the speed and athleticism that you need for me to at least consider they can.

If I were a betting man, I would expect MSU to blitz a good amount even without Grantham. It just makes more sense with Lamar Jackson being such a threat to run the ball. They also have the guys to run him down. Thompson can get downhill really quickly and with Simmons closing down the pocket, he is the kind of guy you need to take advantage of an uncomfortable quarterback.

The secondary for the Bulldogs is strong but they were exposed a few times this year against teams with good offenses. Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama all averaged over thirteen yards per attempt with UGA putting up a ridiculous 16.8 ypa. They faced the fifth least amount of passes in the country this year so some of their numbers are a bit misleading, but they do pretty well at limiting completions. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 51% of their passes and they were at their best against teams that didn’t have strong running games. It’s almost as if Grantham’s insanely aggressive system makes it easy to run play action against it.

Mark McLaurin leads the team in tackles from his safety spot while former UofL target Jonathan Abram is second. J.T. Gray wasn’t a beneficiary of the coordinator change but he has found a nice spot at safety and nickel in the new system. Gray has more tackles and tackles for loss than anyone on the roster and should matchup well in the slot against UofL.

The corners will likely be the question mark for the Bulldogs. They weren’t able to even stick with one corner this year and none of the four that they played were able to make any big plays for them. Jamal Peters was a highly rated guy coming out of high school but his move to corner hasn’t worked out very well. I think that Grantham kept him there because of the lack of depth at the position and it tells me just how poor they are there. This is where Louisville can really win in my opinion. They should be able to beat these corners if they bring a lot of pressure like I predict they will.