Louisville got a great nice lesson in how ineffective their coaching was in 2017 when the defense that Peter Sirmon drug into mediocrity a year before held Lamar Jackson in check. Mississippi State had a ton of talent that year and they had the team speed to at least contain Jackson a bit while Todd Grantham’s pressure schemes forced turnover after turnover. A lot of that talent is gone but MSU has a handful of players that could cause some real issues for Louisville’s offense.
The defensive line is led by Chauncey Rivers at defensive end. Rivers will be familiar to people who watch Last Chance U. He was featured on the show a few years ago and was the top ranked JUCO player in the country. Rivers leads the defense in tackles for loss and sacks. He’s listed at left end so Tyler Haycraft will have a chance to redeem himself after a rough performance against Kentucky.
The rest of the defensive line is big but not overly athletic. Lee Autry is a player that should be a key in how they are able to defend the run. He will be going against Caleb Chandler and Robbie Bell and would be the most likely player to cause disruption against the outside zone runs. The defense allows 4.33 yards per carry and I think that starts up front. They just don’t have any real play makers to get into the backfield to bring guys down or force them off their path.
The group of linebackers is the strong point of this defense, in my opinion. Leo Lewis was the top ranked inside linebacker in the country coming out of high school. He’s also part of the reason that Ole Miss is on probation. Willie Gay was the third ranked outside linebacker in his class. Erroll Thompson might be the best of all of them and he starts in the middle. All three of those guys have a shot at the NFL and all three are guys with size who can really run. Gay might not play in the bowl as he’s only played four games this year and could still redshirt. He’s been injured and has served a suspension but it makes sense for them to gain an extra year for him instead of burning an obvious redshirt situation. Reports say he’s playing but I just find that odd.
Thompson is an outstanding player, in my opinion. He leads the team in tackles but has had a down year when it comes to impact plays. He had nine tackles for loss last year and his speed could cause issues as he can shoot the gaps in the zone blocking scheme and can play sideline-to-sideline. Even if Gay doesn’t play, Lewis and Thompson are the exact type of players that worry me because they have size, speed, and experience. They can be really disruptive against the zone blocking scheme. The positive is that they haven’t played at the level they’re capable of this year. UofL has to make sure that they don’t get it together in the bowl game.
Cameron Dantzler declared for the NFL and will be skipping the game, so Louisville has another positive going for them. Dantzler has been mocked as a mid round pick in the draft, so not having him is a big detriment for MSU. UofL should be seeing two true freshmen corners in the starting lineup who have combined for four total passes defensed. If Louisville gets this match up it should really change the entire passing game. While both players have played a lot this year, there’s no way that they won’t look to help them with safeties. That just opens things up for Tutu Atwell and it might help stave off some of the pass rush because it’s harder to blitz and leave those guys on an island.
Safety was strong in 2017 and it’s a position that’s been reloaded after a few years. Marcus Murphy is supposedly playing even though he’s in the same situation as Willie Gay Jr. He’s a play making safety who had a pick six against Arkansas. He has only played in four games but he’s been an impact guy in three of those games. Murphy playing is huge as Brian Cole will skip the game to prepare for the draft. Cole is the team’s third leading tackler and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss. I’m not sure it’s an even trade, but the Bulldogs would be in rough shape without Murphy there to step in.
Jaquarius Landrews should be the guy to occupy the other safety spot for the Bulldogs. He is second on the team in tackles and he has six pass breakups on the year. It’s never a good sign when your safeties are so highly ranked on your team in tackles and it should be a good sign for Louisville. Not only are these guys being relied on to help in run support, but they are also leaving he defense open for big plays down the field because they’re so involved in run support. MSU hasn’t given up a ton of big pass plays on the year but they have given up five 50+ yard passing plays which is ranked 74th in the country. That was with all of their players available. Not having two potential NFL guys is big. Replacing NFL guys with freshmen is massive.