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November 7, 2013

Bulldogs hard-pressed to score with A&M

Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen was Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator at Florida when Meyer was winning two national titles in the past decade. He came to Starkville after the second of the two in 2009 and became something of a hot commodity by taking the Bulldogs to the Gator Bowl and beating Michigan 52-10 in just his second year. However, Mullen hasn't improved on his second season and the tale since that time has been the same…get off to a good start but then start struggling when they start facing the upper echelon programs in the SEC. For example, the Bulldogs got off to a 7-0 start last season but then lost to Alabama which sparked five losses in their last six games including the finale to arch rival Ole Miss as well as their bowl game.

Mullen brought Meyer's spread option offense with him which has a lot of similarities to what Ole Miss and Auburn run. However, as the offense changed while Mullen was running the show with Tim Tebow at Florida to more of a power attack, Mullen's offenses have changed as well….but not always for the better. In addition, they've used their offense this season for ball control purposes as much as anything else (average time of possession of 33:44 per game which ranks second in the conference) but they don't score a lot (high of 28 in conference play) to keep their defense off of the field.

Mullen's best offenses have been able to run inside zone and then throw play action down the field off of that. However, he's never really gotten great quarterback play for long stretches of the season and as a result he's had to play multiple guys at the position. For example, last year Tyler Russell was more of a drop back quarterback who was having a very good 2012 season but his numbers dropped off during the latter part of the campaign. After putting up just three points in the opener versus Oklahoma State and suffering a concussion, Mullen has gone to more of a dual threat guy in sophomore Dak Prescott. Prescott is a throwback to Mullen's days at Florida when he had Tebow…6 foot 2, 230 pounds, more runner than passer. Prescott is averaging six yards a carry, leads the team in rushing attempts, and has ten touchdowns. Using a quarterback like this enables an offense to outnumber a defense in the running game, especially if they have the size to hold up as a down to down ball carrier.

The flip side is that his average per carry is only slightly below his average per passing attempt of 7.2 yards a throw and he's upside down on his touchdown to interception ratio. He drops his elbow when he throws and doesn't get his feet set or sets them too wide. Because of his inexperience, he has a tendency to lock on one receiver and make bad decisions under pressure.

With Russell, the Bulldogs used three receivers and a H back/tight end/fullback much like Ole Miss and Auburn and they haven't changed that approach with Prescott. However, they'll run more of the zone read and option and have designated quarterback runs like the dart or wrap. This is where they will run a zone read look one way but the running back going that direction will block the defensive end to that side. The tackle to that side pulls to the opposite direction and leads the quarterback between the guard and tackle to the playside after a fake to the tailback. They will also run the inverted veer that you saw with Auburn and Ole Miss where the running back goes outside and the quarterback reads the defensive end to the playside and goes upfield. They'll even pull a guard and H back off the backside and effectively make this quarterback power.

Prescott's mother passed away Monday and he's been in Louisiana this week which means that he hasn't practiced that much. Russell has split time with Prescott but tweaked his ankle against Kentucky and did not play last week versus South Carolina. If Russell gets the start, the emphasis shifts to more of a downfield passing game (he's hit 70% of his passes and is averaging 9.1 yards per attempt but has just 43 attempts on the season) and tailback LaDarius Perkins plays a much bigger role in the running game.

Perkins (5 foot 10, 190 pounds) rushed for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore and had five times as many carries as anyone else. He was the workhorse as Russell was not a running threat and so the Bulldogs were more of an inside zone and drop back passing team. This season, his carries, yardage, and average per carry have declined as he has become a complimentary player to Prescott's abilities. Perkins has good feet and is physical but lacks the size to be 20 to 25 carry a game runner and is not a breakaway threat. This season, they will motion him into the backfield or move him from one side to the other and he'll also serve as a lead blocker on quarterback isolation for Prescott. If Russell gets the start, Perkins will get the ball on inside zone and he and 225 pound sophomore Josh Robinson will split the carries.

Mississippi State's offensive line is a big (all over 300 pounds) and experienced (all upperclassmen) group and it's led by left guard Gabe Jackson who's a mere 6 foot 4, 335 pounds. Jackson is an all SEC caliber player who has started every game in his career. Unlike a lot of big guys, he can break down in his stance and win pad level. He's also light on his feet and very adept at pulling. Generally, the Bulldogs will run behind him either to his side with zone blocking or to the right side with him pulling. It's something to watch him come left to right, not see anyone to block, adjust his feet, and keep going to find someone else. Blaine Clausell did a good job at left tackle last week against Sotuh Carolina's Javeon Clowney. Dillon Day is a solid center who is good at double teams and moving on to scoop block linebackers at the second level. They've have issues on the right side of the line with a walk on, Ben Beckwith starting at right guard.

As a group, they're not very quick footed and use their size and hands to push people around and stop penetration rather than use their feet as a base for movement. They allow over six tackles a loss per game and have allowed 16 sacks even though they throw the ball just over 30 times a game (for comparison purposes, A&M has permitted 13 sacks in 336 pass attempts).

Jameon Lewis (5 foot 9, 185 pounds) is a slot leads the team in receptions with 37 catches. They will move him into the backfield and hand it off to him as well. He's actually an explosive player who averages 13 yards a reception and nine yards a carry and can make you miss after the catch. Their passing routes in the drop back game are what you see out of an Air Raid team like A&M except with Prescott they tend to complete the shorter routes because of Prescott's inexperience, their protection issues, and their lack of speed as opposed to size (starting wideouts Robert Johnson and Joe Morrow are 210 pounds or more). They are also polished at running their routes; they have a tendency to round them off instead of sticking and cutting back which doesn't help Prescott. They use 6 foot 7, 265 pound Rufus Warren as a H back and although he can block well close to the line of scrimmage he doesn't get downfield very quickly in his routes and is another limiting factor in the passing game. If Russell is playing, he'll take more sacks as he's holding the ball longer and is less mobile than Prescott. However, he'll also take more shots down the field and have more success at it than Prescott.

The Aggies' defense struggled against Ole Miss and Auburn which run similar offenses. In particular, A&M had particular issues matching up with 21 personnel and stayed in a nickel alignment despite the fact that both teams used a H back and/or a tight end. The disparity in size allowed Ole Miss to run the ball effectively in the second half of their game and Auburn to run for over 300 yards. Vanderbilt and UTEP both used heavy formations with UTEP going to 12 personnel and the Aggies not only played a base 4-3 look but walked their defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage with man coverage in the secondary. They also slanted their line, blitzed more, and did both out of a 3-3 alignment with Nate Askew effectively playing an end spot.

Rather than reading and reacting, the Aggies attacked and have more sacks in their past two games than they had in their first seven games of the season. In addition, they've registered 21 tackles for loss and forced seven turnovers. It hasn't hurt that they've faced young quarterbacks making their first start on the road but the numbers are so overwhelming you can't just chalk it up to that factor alone. They're playing quicker linemen such as Ivan Robinson and Daeshon Hall more and those guys can beat the down and reach blocks that a team like Mississippi State uses.

A&M also struggled with defensive ends and linebackers playing the zone read and being indecisive rather than playing assignment football and taking the quarterback or running back. The Aggies haven't seen nearly as much of that the past two games but have gotten better in their limited opportunities.

If the Aggies can continue to be aggressive on defense and play the option well (if Prescott plays a lot), they'll really limit Mississippi State offensively. If Russell plays a lot, A&M must be able to stop inside zone with Perkins and play action off of that. Like a lot of SEC teams, if you stop their running game, they don't have a plan B. The Aggies may have issues with the quarterback running game and the Bulldogs' size up front but Mississippi State is not going to score a lot of points because they can't get the ball downfield in the passing game like most teams unless Russell plays a lot. At some time in the game, Mississippi State will have to start taking more risks to stay with A&M, they will begin to break down offensively, and the Aggies should outscore them.


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