Kansas State football fans were on their feet and the Mississippi State Bulldogs were on their heels.
The Wildcats had just followed a MSU holding penalty with a pair of tackles from linebackers DaQuan Patton and Elijah Sullivan, which forced the Bulldogs into third and 17 from the K-State 39. Another stop meant Mississippi State was likely to punt.
This was late in the first quarter and the score was tied at 3-3. Stuffing the Bulldogs and getting the ball back with an opportunity to take the lead, or even surrendering a modest gain followed by a field-goal attempt, would have been a big momentum booster for the Wildcats.
But things didn’t play out that way.
Instead, Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald found Stephen Guidry on a shallow crossing route and the receiver turned up field for a gain of 19 yards and a first down. The Bulldogs scored a touchdown two plays later and never looked back in a 31-10 victory Saturday. Up to that point, K-State was giving Mississippi State all it could handle. But that sequence signaled the beginning of the end for K-State’s upset hopes.
“It was just frustrating,” K-State linebacker Sam Sizelove said. “You do all this work to stop them and put them in that position, and then you have to start over and try to stop them again. It kind of drives you crazy.”
What went wrong for the Wildcats?
Start with coaching schemes. Mississippi State had the advantage before the ball was snapped. The Bulldogs went with a formation that featured four receivers (three right and Guidry left) and a running back out of the shotgun. The Wildcats countered by taking out their starting defensive tackles and inserting a defensive line of four pass rushers.
Defensive coordinator Blake Seiler then called for Patton and Sullivan to crowd the line of scrimmage and show blitz, while K-State’s defensive backs all played well off the line of scrimmage to defend against a long pass.
It’s unclear whether Fitzgerald decided to target Guidry short when he read blitz, but that decision paid off in the end, because K-State never brought pressure.
Instead of rushing six, as K-State’s pre-snap alignment suggested, the Wildcats dropped all but three players into coverage. Defensive end Reggie Walker, Patton and Sullivan retreated into zone coverage once the ball was snapped. Kyle Ball, Wyatt Hubert and Bronson Massie tried to pressure Fitzgerald into a hurried throw.
There is nothing wrong with faking a blitz and disguising pass coverage, but those tactics didn’t work on this play. Walker and K-State’s linebackers dropped back far enough to create a huge crossing lane for Guidry. With the three MSU receivers on the other side of the field clearing out space and Fitzgerald facing an ineffective three-man rush, K-State appeared out of the play before the pass was thrown.
Easy pass, easy catch, easy run. Only a Mississippi State mishap or a superhuman effort from a K-State defender could have prevented a first down at that point.
K-State coach Bill Snyder blamed the long conversion on “a plethora of things that created problems for us” on third down throughout the game. Mississippi State converted seven of 12. But, in this instance, he seemed most displeased with three defensive ends attempting to overpower five offensive linemen.
“Our pass rush sometimes creates some problems for us,” Snyder said. “The pass rush is about a lot of different things. It’s not just rushing the passer. It’s being able to play off the draw plays with their quarterback, which we got in some trouble with in that period of time. You can only give a guy so much time back there to throw the ball, and when you do you are going to have some problems.”
Fitzgerald hit Guidry with a short pass as he streaked in front of Sullivan and Walker. As Guidry turned to cut up field, he saw lots of green turf in front of him. Mississippi State’s other receivers had cleared all but two K-State defensive backs out of the area, and one of them had a blocker impeding his path to Guidry.
K-State defensive back Walter Neil, who made several impressive tackles in space on Saturday, recovered and nearly did enough to prevent a first down by tripping up Guidry before he reached the first-down marker, but his momentum carried him well across the line.
Maybe K-State would have been better off blitzing. Perhaps K-State’s safeties needed to come up and help.
Sizelove blamed the play on something else.
“It was just a lack of communication,” he said. “We need to let guys know that crosser is coming. We can’t just focus on getting our job done, we have to let everyone else know a crosser is coming so they can make a play. That’s what it boils down to, a lack of communication.”
Better communication would have helped. K-State defenders didn’t converge on Guidry until it was too late. And no one attempted to cover him coming off the line of scrimmage.
A mixture of different strategy and better execution could have erased a giant play for Mississippi State. Instead, this first down led to a lot more.
“We have to give opponents a good deal of credit for being able to make plays when they have to make plays,” Snyder said. “That’s being a good football team, which they were.”