STARKVILLE, Miss. — For all of the gaudy numbers that tend to come from a Mike Leach offense, Texas A&M defensive tackle Jayden Peevy summed up the way to shut it down.
“Put three down front and get at the quarterback,” he said.
Following the blueprint used by Kentucky in its win over Mississippi State earlier this season, the 11th-ranked Aggies recorded six sacks, forced a fumble and brought pressure that resulted in an interception to beat the Bulldogs 28-14 on Saturday in front of 13,142 at Davis-Wade Stadium.
“From Day 1 we believed in the game plan,” Peevy said. “We saw Kentucky come out in a three-man front. Watched a lot of film against these guys and ... so we planned on it all week.”
A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko used a three-man rush most of the game, leaving eight defenders to drop in coverage against MSU’s Air Raid offense. With junior defensive tackle Bobby Brown III out, Peevy anchored the middle of the three-man front between a rotating medley of ends.
Peevy said the pass rush was the main focus of practice all week. But the Aggies (3-1) also stifled MSU’s ground game, holding the Bulldogs to minus 2 yards. It’s their best showing since holding Wyoming to minus 3 rushing yards on Sept. 11, 2004.
“We mixed it up and Mike [Elko] did a really good job in the game plan, keeping it mixed and being able to create pressures,” A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said.
MSU was without its starting running back Kylin Hill, who didn’t play for undisclosed reasons, Leach said.
Defensive end DeMarvin Leal had the biggest impact on the Bulldog passing game, recording a sack and three quarterback hurries.
After trading punts over the first two possessions of the game, MSU quarterback K.J. Costello felt the pressure of a charging Leal while hurling a pass towards the end zone on second-and-6 from the A&M 35-yard line. The pass fell short of the target and was picked off by cornerback Myles Jones in the end zone.
In the second quarter, the Aggies sacked Costello four times, each by a different defender. Linebacker Aaron Hansford got to Costello first for an 8-yard loss. On the ensuing punt, Aggie linebacker Chris Russell pushed into the backfield and got a hand on the ball, giving A&M a start on the MSU 1. Running back Isaiah Spiller ran it in on the next play for his second touchdown in a minute and a half, giving A&M a 14-0 lead.
Spiller opened the scoring on the first play of the second quarter on a 3-yard rumble through the middle. That capped an eight-play, 66-yard drive in which Spiller carried the ball seven times for 54 yards.
Spiller finished the first half with 79 yards on 12 carries. Overall, he had 114 yards on 18 carries for his third 100-yard game of the season.
“He has run the ball pretty hard,” right tackle Carson Green said. “Last week, I definitely think he got all the confidence he needed, knowing that he’s an SEC back and he can run people over. You’ve got to love it.”
Leal picked up his first sack later in the second quarter, dropping Costello for a 7-yard loss. Brian Williams added one for a 6-yard loss later on the same drive. Peevy finally joined the party as time wound down in the first half with a 9-yard sack.
MSU’s defense ultimately broke up the shutout early in the third quarter. Kellen Mond’s slant pass intended for Ainias Smith bounced off the running back’s helmet and into the arms of cornerback Emmanuel Forbes. The freshman returned it 60 yards for the score, cutting A&M’s lead to 14-7 with 11:38 left in the third quarter.
It was Mond’s second interception returned for a score this season, but the senior quarterback bounced back on the next drive with two passes to wide receiver Chase Lane for 70 yards, including a 51-yard TD pass that pushed A&M’s lead to 21-7 less than a minute and a half after Forbes’ interception return.
Mond completed 13 of 23 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was grit,” Fisher said of the offense’s quick rebound. “It was determination. It was lack of panic and confidence in yourself, not just grit but also having the confidence in yourself to get right back and execute the next play. That was big.”
A&M’s defensive line stepped up again in the third quarter, forcing a Costello fumble that led to another Aggie TD. Linebacker Buddy Johnson got to Costello first and knocked the ball loose, while Peevy scooped it up and returned it 19 yards to the MSU 8. Had he made it to the end zone, it would’ve been his first touchdown at any level, Peevy said.
“I didn’t know who was behind me. I was just trying to run,” Peevy said with a laugh.
Two plays after the fumble recovery, Mond hit Smith in the end zone with a 6-yard TD pass for a 28-7 lead with 8:39 left in the third quarter.
After the fumble, MSU replaced Costello with freshman Will Rogers, who completed 15 of 18 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. His lone TD came on a 32-yard pass to Malik Heath early in the fourth quarter, completing an efficient 13-play, 89-yard drive.
Costello, who transferred from Stanford, finished 15-for-22 passing for 99 yards with an interception. Leach said after the game his starting spot could be in jeopardy.
“It needs to be evaluated,” Leach said. “We have the two weeks, so we’ll sort that then, but I think it needs to be evaluated. Right now, we’re one team on Tuesday and Wednesday and another team on Saturday.”
The combination of freshman Devon Achane and Smith effectively ran out the clock for A&M, adding to an Aggie rush attack that posted 186 of A&M’s 325 yards. Spiller exited the game in the fourth quarter with extra tape on his left ankle and a noticeable limp. Fisher said he took Spiller out of the game for precautionary reasons and that his lead back should be available for the game against Arkansas in two weeks.
“We’ll look at it and see,” Fisher said. “They said he could have come back, but we went ahead with Ainias and [Achane]. I thought they were doing a really nice job. No sense in banging it back up.”
Saturday marked A&M’s first win in Starkville since 2012 when the Johnny Manziel-led Aggies beat the Bulldogs 38-13. The Aggies’ last trip to Davis-Wade Stadium ended in a 28-13 loss that left a bitter taste in the mouth of left guard Kenyon Green.
“The last time I was here was not a good feeling,” Green said. “We had them and I think [Nick] Fitzgerald hit that long run to stick a knife in us. It’s a good feeling this week.”
Saturday’s victory also has opened up conversation about A&M’s potential postseason prizes down the line, including an outside shot at playing in the College Football Playoff.
“The whole week we had a big emphasis that we needed show the whole world that last week we won that game and we didn’t lose it,” Green said. “It was a tough game, but we needed to come back and show that we’re a tough team.”
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