Fourth down has not been kind to Mississippi State’s defense. The Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 SEC) have allowed opponents to convert on 11 of 15 fourth downs this season, or 73.3%. That ranks last in the SEC and 114th in the country.
Of course, not all fourth-down situations are significant. Some come in garbage time, while others that are successful at a crucial moment might be overcome by the defense later on. So let’s break this down best we can to see just what this says about MSU’s defense.
In SEC play, opponents converted on 5 of 10 fourth downs, so that’s a much better percentage. In its losses, MSU allowed 4 of 5 successful conversions: Alabama 1 of 1, Texas A&M 2 of 3, and Ole Miss 1 of 1. How critical were these conversions? Let’s start with Alabama, a game MSU lost 38-7.
On the game’s very first drive, the Tide faced a fourth-and-1 at MSU’s 37-yard line. Big tailback Eddie Lacy ran for two yards over right tackle, and Bama scored a touchdown three plays later.
In its 38-13 loss to Texas A&M, MSU gave up both fourth-down conversions in the second half. The Aggies had a comfortable 31-7 lead in the third quarter when quarterback Johnny Manziel completed a 6-yard pass to Mike Evans on a fourth-and-6. That drive ended in a Manziel fumble. On its next possession, A&M converted a fourth-and-1 when Christine Michael rushed for 3 yars. That possession ended with a missed field goal. MSU’s fourth-down stop in that game came later, well into garbage time.
Then last week, in a 41-24 loss to Ole Miss, State gave up a fourth down conversion in the fourth quarter. The game was well in hand by that point.
What this seems to tell us is that fourth downs did not play a major role in MSU’s losses. But there were other fourth-down conversions at key times this year, yet State still won those games. The level of competition probably had something to do with it. For instance, the three Sun Belt opponents MSU played – Troy, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee State – were a combined 5 of 5. The Bulldogs got a scare from Troy but beat the other two by double digits.
So maybe, on the whole, fourth downs weren’t a huge problem for the Bulldogs this season. Still, 11 of 15 isn’t a good stat, and I believe that speaks to the issues we’ve seen on the defensive line, which has not done as good a job as a lot of us figured they would. That’s partially evident by tackles-for-loss – MSU had just 62 of them, which is tied for 82nd nationally. An ability to hit a guy behind the line of scrimmage and keep him there is quite important in fourth-down situations.