Examining the Mississippi State Run Game
Much has been made of the similarities between the offense Dan Mullen ran at Florida and the one he uses now, and there are a lot of them.
The wide-open, spread running attack that won Tim Tebow a Heisman Trophy in Gainesville has paid huge dividends in Starkville, even before this historic season. If Dak Prescott can keep winning, there’s a good chance he’ll be the next Dan Mullen pupil to be accepting that historic trophy in New York.
Then again the Heisman ceremony is still a long way off, and so is any talk of a playoff appearance, especially if you ask Dan Mullen.
To the outside observer, though, the Bulldogs appear to be playing with house money. In a season where no one predicted they’d be anything other than a footnote in what was already considered to be the toughest division in college football, they’ve beaten three-straight top ten teams, and made it to the top of the polls faster than anyone in history.
Still, the dogs have to travel to Alabama a month from now, not to mention a road game at a very dangerous and quickly improving Kentucky team next Saturday. And, oh yeah, there’s the match up that people all around college football are starting to whisper about. “The team up north,” Mullen calls them.
The Ole Miss Rebels, the other undefeated football team in Mississippi, in the midst of their own dream season, are waiting for the Bulldogs. This year the Egg Bowl will take place in Oxford, and it’s safe to say that the entire state of Mississippi will be declaring their allegiance to one side or the other, should the two programs still be undefeated come November 29.
In a head coach’s mind, talking about a game scheduled six weeks from now will get you the same empty stare as if you brought up string theory, since the two are equally irrelevant to the task at hand, preparing for the next game. At the moment Dan Mullen is worried about avoiding a letdown on the road against a Kentucky team who all of a sudden has a huge opportunity to make a statement about the direction their program is headed.
The Basics: Outside Zone
It’s no understatement to say that this offense runs on the legs (and arm) of the latest Heisman favorite, Dak Prescott.
Like most other successful offenses, Mullen stays successful by keeping things simple, especially for the big guys up front. This offense is built around two plays, the outside zone, and the power play. There are elements of the option, and at times Mullen can throw a few wrinkles into the mix, but these two plays make up the foundation of the offense.
In the example below, the offense starts out in a “Trey” formation with three receivers to one side and a single tight end to the other. Just before the snap, the QB Prescott will send the #3 receiver in an “orbit” motion and put him into a position to take the handoff and run the outside zone play. The defense may adjust by bumping in an extra linebacker as you can see in the diagram, but if they over-correct by too much, Prescott has all kinds of other things he can do, including keep it, pitch it to the tailback coming on a wide pitch option path, or even throw it to the uncovered receiver running the bubble route to the wide side of the field.
While you may not know it just from a cursory look at what the Bulldogs do on offense, a lot of it’s built off of the one-cut style of the Alex Gibbs offense, which is built off the “one-cut” style, where the running back’s reads are simplified, and he has to make his decision quickly and stick with it. There’s no dancing up front, and as a result, decisive backs can quickly become fantasy football heroes when properly coached up in the offense.
The conventional wisdom says that a team running the outside zone play is really trying to get to the edge. While that may be true at times, Gibbs built an entire offense in the mid-to-late nineties off of running the outside zone play each time with Terrell Davis, but that didn’t mean the ball was hitting in the alley each time, or was even supposed to do so.
The Bulldogs use the same scheme up front, and instead of trying to get to the perimeter as quickly as possible, Dan Mullen’s objective is to use his offensive line to push the defenders up front out of the way so that his guys can cut up inside of them.
What’s really happening here is that the OL is blocking outside zone to the weak side, something that’s becoming more and more common in college football, but still seems counterintuitive to some people. Why? Because if you look at the left side of the formation, the offense is short one man in the numbers game. Who’s going to block the Will linebacker out there on the edge? After all, isn’t that why the offense is running outside zone, to get to the edge? Not necessarily.
A lot of times what ends up happening is that the offensive line is so good, and the defensive line so aggressive in trying to shut down the play, that the blocks become very easy because it all becomes a matter of leverage. The offensive line wants to go to the left, and so does the defensive line, so in effect, the O-Line doesn’t have to work very hard at all, just guide the defenders to where they want to go. Now of course, it usually doesn’t happen this easily, but if an offensive line is able to beat the guys across from them to the punch on a consistent basis and gain the kind of leverage required for a wide block, then they can do a great job of pushing all the obstacles outside and open up big holes inside. That’s where the ‘cutback’ happens.
Let’s take a look at a few.
QB Zone Lead
Here’s a twist on an old favorite, the QB stretch play. Like we said earlier, the offense is based off of the outside zone scheme, and there are a lot of teams out there who make a living off of using their QB’s legs to get to the edge quickly. Take this play for example.
The QB will take the snap and fake it to the tailback as if he were running the front side power read or a similar action. Then, instead of taking off in the other direction like the defense and so many other people are probably expecting, the QB will follow his tailback, who is now in a “search” mode to find the hole just like if he were carrying the football. He’ll take the first opposite color jersey he finds in the hole, and the QB will follow right behind him, playing off his block and hopefully evening up the numbers at the point of attack.
Here you’ve got even numbers to the weak side for running the stretch play, and the backfield action may cause some different reactions by the linebackers, since they’re expecting to play the zone read, and scrape to their assignments. The Will backer may try extra hard to set the edge, and as a result the tailback and Quarterback will find one less man to meet them up inside the hole. The Sam backer in this case will probably have to at least hesitate, if not totally cheat toward a scraping position when he sees the near back go away from him. It will probably delay him a bit from coming over the top of all the carnage to help tackle the ball carrier.
Either way, it’s something that forces the defenders to second guess themselves and go against their instincts, gets numbers to the point of attack, and keeps the ball in the QB’s hands.
Mississippi State Offense – Nose Read
One of the most fascinating play designs in my opinion is the nose read.
One of the things people may not realize is that of all the little wrinkles and variations that offensive coaches use in conjunction with the zone play, almost all of the adaptations have something to do with changing up the assignments on the backside of the play. By and large, the front side of the zone play, whether inside or out, stays pretty consistent. The idea that you’re trying to get some kind of double team on the big guys to front side doesn’t usually change.
What does change has a lot to do with how the defense likes to defend the backside of the play, who takes the dive player and who is responsible for the quarterback- that sort of thing. So it makes sense then that all the fun stuff for the offense, the scheming, x’s and o’s, happens on that side as well as a reaction and also usually a proactive method of dictating to the defense what you want them to do.
Think about it, most of the games being played by the offense in the zone play has something to do with screwing with the backside defensive end and the linebacker(s) to that side as well, whether you’re running a traditional zone read play where the QB can take off and run with it, a zone play with a TE/H-back “wham” block on the DE, or the same player “bluffing” at the DE and climbing to the second level to seal off the scraping linebacker.
Well, the play below is another, albeit less-common, variation on the same theme as before. The offense gives the defense a familiar backfield action, and for the linemen to the front side of the play, once again, nothing changes. They’re still double-teaming the big guy to the play side, and climbing to the second level to take on the linebacker in their gaps.
On the other side of the play is where the real fun happens. All of a sudden, instead of the QB reading the DE to his side, he’s eyeing the nose. Even better for the offense, the nose tackle is now forced to play in space, something he’s very rarely asked to do, and most aren’t comfortable with it at all.
The DE to the backside is base-blocked by the left tackle, and the Mike is sealed off by the guard. If the offense is lucky, the Mike may get fooled by the backfield action and try to scrape to the QB around the edge when he sees the back cross the QB’s face at the mesh point. If that happens, it’s even better for the offense, since the running lane gets even bigger inside.
A lot of defenses may not have a true nose, or a one-technique player who specifically plays that position, since a lot of teams expect their players to be interchangeable in case of an up-tempo offense, the team can line up either way, and the defensive line can get set quickly whether the strength is to their left or their right.
Regardless, with all the option plays we’ve seen in college football that target the defensive ends, the big guys inside have been largely left out. If you can make their jobs more difficult by giving them more things to worry about, you should do it, and that’s exactly what this play is designed to do.
Mississippi State Offense – Wrap Read
Similar to the standard power-read play that every spread team seems to be running these days, the wrap-read play provides a way to get the ball to the QB against teams who are scheming to take the ball away from him in the standard veer/read option play. Just like we talked about before, there’s a good chance that the linebacker, specifically the Will, will try to scrape to the QB around the edge, when it’s his gap the offense is targeting in this situation, and the tackle’s job will be a lot easier.
The change up happens when instead of heading in the same direction as the sweeping tailback, the QB will take off in the opposite direction. This allows the offense to threaten both sides of the formation simultaneously, while also providing another constraint on the defense, and one more thing they have to prepare for.
Admittedly, this is a play that works better when you have a mobile QB, and it’s especially effective when that backside linebacker is inexperienced and doesn’t cross-key well. In most schemes, when the near back goes away, the linebacker’s eyes should immediately go inside to the QB to prepare for him as a runner or on the bootleg pass. Younger linebackers have a tendency to chase the tailback and play undisciplined, so this is an excellent way to keep them honest.
Mississippi State Offense – Outside Zone Read w/ Pop Pass
Another play put in place to keep the defense honest is the “pop pass” play, which puts a lot of stress on the guys at the second level who are responsible for containing the QB on option plays.
In this example, Mississippi State lines up in trips with the two receivers to the strong side stacked on top of one another, something that the Bulldogs have been using with some success this year.
The defense can align in a couple of different ways to this set, but in this scenario, the corner is pressed on the first receiver, and the Sam LB is splitting the difference between the tight end and the receiver stack alignment. The safety to that side of the field is taking anything going deep to his side and the corner will play the flats. The Sam may be called upon to take a crossing receiver that goes shallow.
Depending on how the defense wants to scheme it, you could conceivably have the Mike or the Sam be responsible for the QB on this play, but regardless of who it is, the tight end has a lot of open space to work with once the defense reads run and comes downhill. The arc release of the tight end also puts the defensive end in a bind, since from the DE’s perspective, the two linemen across from him are moving in two different directions. If nothing else, you may force him to slow down and/or hesitate for a moment.
Plays like this keep the defenders on their toes, and can go a long way toward getting those aggressive players on the other side of the ball to play slower, and thus, play worse.
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