- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saturday serves as both a blessing and a curse for Mississippi State's defense.
On one hand, the Bulldogs' defense has a chance to redeem itself after Alabama rolled right over this unit last week. The problem is that Mississippi State is taking on the SEC's best offense.
Texas A&M has the fifth-best offense nationally, averaging 542.9 yards per game, and is third in scoring (45.5). Thanks to a group of talented skill players, a veteran offensive line and the human highlight reel at quarterback, the Aggies' offense has been one of the most fun ones to watch this season.
"They are going to spread you out across the field and create those matchups for their talent," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.
Mike Evans and Ryan Swope have been outstanding at wide receiver this season for the Aggies, combining for 83 catches for 1,225 yards and seven touchdowns. Ben Malena has been a pleasant surprise at running back (525 yards and five touchdowns).
But we know what really makes this A&M offense tick: Johnny Manziel.
The redshirt freshman has received Heisman love, and he has killed teams with his arm and his legs. He's averaging 277 yards passing and 99 rushing each game. He also has combined to score 29 touchdowns in his first season on the field.
"If you give him all day to stand back there and throw, he'll throw and beat you with his arm. If you give him open spaces, he's going to take off and beat you with his legs," Mullen said. "You have to do everything to contain him."
And good defenses have done so in the second half of games. Florida and LSU clamped down on Johnny Football in their wins against the Aggies, and the Bulldogs are looking to take some of what the Gators and Tigers did and expand on it Saturday.
Mullen knows he has to put pressure on Manziel, but he can't be too aggressive because running lanes could open up. And you obviously can't give him time to stand in the pocket.
Only two defenses have calmed Manziel's storm, and the Bulldogs certainly have the talent to do it, as well, especially with such a talented secondary.
This is the same unit that gave up some big plays against Alabama, but it's also the same unit that has arguably the nation's top cornerback duo in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who have combined for 10 of Mississippi State's 12 interceptions.
Communication issues hurt this group against Alabama, but don't expect these players to have the same sort of issues Saturday. And with the way Manziel likes to improvise, things could get tricky for him if he doesn't settle down under duress.
"Your concern is that this is a really, really good secondary," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Not only is it a good secondary, it's an experienced secondary."
To take some of the pressure off that secondary, all eyes will be on Mississippi State's defensive line. What was expected to be a strong part of this defense hasn't really lived up to expectations.
The line has combined for eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss through eight games. The core was supposed to be junior college transfer Denico Autry and veteran Josh Boyd. They've combined for just three sacks and seven tackles for loss.
"I want pressure every play," Mullen said. "I guess if every time a team tries to throw the ball and it ends in a sack, that's what I want."
In a perfect world, Mullen would get that. For now, he'll have to hope for flat-out improvement up front. And he'll need it if this defense is going to rebound Saturday.
7dSam Khan Jr.
15dSam Khan Jr.