Preview: The Mississippi State Offense

Andy Lyons

Under Dan Mullen Mississippi State runs a spread offense out of shotgun and pistol formations. They’ve run the ball well, averaging 209.7 yards per game on the ground, good for 26th best in the nation. On the other hand, passing the ball has proven to be more difficult. They’ve averaged 249.6 yards per game through the air, good for 52nd in the nation.

At this time, the Mississippi State offense is difficult to preview because of their injury situation. They use a two quarterback system, but sophomore Dak Prescott, who seems to be moving into more of a primary role as of late, suffered an elbow injury last Saturday against Texas A&M and is currently listed as questionable for the game against Alabama. As of right now, Mississippi State is hopeful that he’ll be able to practice more and more as the week goes on, but the entire situation seems uncertain.

Prescott and the other quarterback, Tyler Russell, have contrasting styles. Prescott is the far more mobile quarterback – he’s their leading rusher on the season, having already amassed 722 yards on the ground (6.5 yards per carry) to go along with 10 touchdowns. At the same time he has struggled throwing the ball, and in that area Russell is clearly the superior player. Prescott has only completed 58.4 % of his passing, and is averaging 7.04 yards per attempt. He also has thrown 7 interceptions. Meanwhile, Russell, in far fewer attempts, has completed 66.7 % of his passes, and is averaging 8.21 yards per attempt. Basically this is your typical two quarterback situation – Prescott is the superior runner and Russell is the superior passer.

LaDarius Perkins is the top running back, and will see the bulk of the snaps on Saturday. He has struggled a bit this year, averaging only 4.5 yards per carry on 96 attempts. His backup, Josh Robinson, has enjoyed considerably more success – 5.7 yards per carry, albeit on only 45 attempts. The Mississippi state offensive line is led by preseason All-SEC first team selection Gabe Jackson, who plays left guard. On the whole the line has been a bit inconsistent this year, and Saturday should provide the Tide’s linemen and backers with opportunities to make plays in the backfield and around the line of scrimmage.

The wide receivers are led by junior slot receiver Jameon Lewis. He is having a very strong year, having already caught 39 passes for 505 yards (12.9 yards per catch) to go along with 4 touchdowns. They’ll also motion him into the backfield and use him as a runner on occasion (13 rushing attempts for 117 yards). Mullen will look to find ways to get Lewis the ball in space as often as possible, as he’s a threat to make a big play on every touch. Alabama has seen some similar players this year (specifically Pig Howard) and have generally done a good job slowing them down. They’ll need to find similar success on Saturday if they hope to keep the Bulldog offense in check. De’Runnya Wilson is their big play receiver on the outside (14.6 yards per catch), because at 6’5" he’s extremely difficult to deal with in man coverage situations. Robert Johnson and Joe Morrow have also played pretty well at the wide receiver position (291 and 199 receiving yards on the season, respectively) and tight-end Malcolm Johnson has become one of Prescott’s favorite targets.

Against Prescott the biggest concern is his mobility, within the Xs and Os and outside them as well. What I mean by outside them is basically him scrambling and improvising on passing plays, when nobody is open. If he plays he’ll be the most dangerous running quarterback Alabama has seen all year, outside of Johnny Manziel. He’s extremely fast, has good vision, and is typically decisive when an opportunity presents itself. Here are two examples of him picking up huge chunks of yardage on scrambles:

If Alabama wants to play man coverage, Prescott’s ability will force the defensive line to be extremely disciplined. That means the ends cannot get too far up-field, and instead must contain the edge and not allow Prescott to escape the pocket. This style of play is counter-intuitive to most players, and presents a difficult challenge for even the best teams. On the other hand, because of Prescott’s difficulties throwing the football, Alabama may choose to use a defender (probably CJ Mosley) as a spy, something they’ve done in the past against Manziel, with varying degrees of success.

Mississippi State will also give their quarterbacks opportunities to run the ball within the Xs and Os. There will be some quarterback draws and other designed keepers, but for the most part we’re talking about a variety of option plays. One example of this is the inverted veer, something we saw many times over from Ole Miss earlier in the season. This is the newest read option variant, having only grown popular over the last five years, or thereabout. While typical read option plays provide the quarterback with an off-tackle running option, an inverted veer keeps the quarterback between the tackles. Teams with larger, more physical quarterbacks often use this play, especially if they have a speedy back that is good at getting to the edge.

Here is an example of Prescott and Perkins running the inverted veer.

Prescott probably makes the wrong decision here – the defensive end crashes inside, and with his slot receiver having set, the edge Perkins would probably have been able to turn the corner and get a big gain, had Prescott given him the ball. Instead Prescott keeps it, and his combination of quickness and strength allow for a nice gain anyway. Despite his natural ability, the read is something that Prescott actually struggles with from time to time, at least more so than a quarterback within a system like this should. That’s similar to another quarterback that played under Dan Mullen at the University of Florida, Tim Tebow. As great as Tebow was, he probably could’ve been even better if he didn’t make the wrong read on the option plays as often as he did. Maybe Mullen is doing a poor job of teaching it or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but either way it’s something to watch for on Saturday. If Prescott consistently makes the wrong reads against the Alabama defense they will swallow up him or the running back at the line of scrimmage more often than not.

Mississippi State also uses a speed option, something that teams around the country have been using less and less as the zone read, veer, and inverted veer have grown more popular. The speed option is more traditional option football, with the quarterback running off tackle and the running back taking an even wider angle and staying slightly behind the quarterback – giving the quarterback the option to keep the ball himself or pitch it out wide to the running back. If a defender is there to play the quarterback, the quarterback must attack the inside shoulder of the defender, forcing him to make a decision – either move inside to take away the quarterback or stay outside and take away the pitch to the running back. Either way he’s wrong.

Typically you can expect this play to be called when Prescott is in the game, but Russell can run a little bit, too, and in this case the play is called for him. Here’s the video.

Mississippi State is in a 2X2 formation, with the receivers to the right side in a stack. Russell is in shotgun, with one running back, Josh Robinson, lined up to Russell’s right. LSU is in their 4-2-5 nickel formation.

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The player being read is number 18, the backer lined up to the strong side. Mississippi State blocks up the play very nicely, with some of their linemen cut blocking and others engaging in regular blocks. The wide receivers to the play-side also do a good job of engaging defensive backs and holding their blocks as long as possible.

Russell does exactly what he should do, attacking the inside of number 18, forcing him to make a decision. The defender is indecisive, placing himself between Russell and Robinson, and in no position to make a play on the ball. Russell wisely keeps it, and turns up-field for a nice gain.

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Against these plays, the key for the defense is to not be caught in a situation where there is only one unblocked defender, because as discussed above, that defender will be wrong no matter what he does – and the offense will get a nice gain out of it. Other defenders in the box, either backers or the play-side end, must defeat their blocks and flow quickly to the play-side to help out the defender being read. The defensive backs on the outside also must defeat their blocks and involve themselves in the play.

As for the passing game, the player to watch is slot receiver Jameon Lewis. In many ways Lewis emulates some of the great NFL slot receivers, running lots of option routes underneath, which proves quite taxing for linebackers and slot corners. Lets take a look at a couple of examples, starting with an outside breaking route.

Mississippi State is in an empty set, with Lewis lined up in the slot to the left. LSU is in a nickel formation.

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Lewis starts off his route running toward the inside, causing both the linebacker and safety to that side, to also move inside, anticipating his route going in that direction.

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Lewis senses this and changes course back to the outside, essentially running a whip route. He’s wide open and Russell hits him for a nice catch and run.

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These sorts of plays are very effective, so long as the chemistry is good between the receiver and quarterback. It’s easy to see how disaster could strike – if both players are not on the same page and the quarterback throws it to the side that the receiver didn’t break toward, it’s very likely that the pass will find it’s way into the waiting arms of a defender.

Lets look at a second example, this one with Lewis continuing his route across the middle of the field.

Mississippi State is in an empty set, and once again Lewis is lined up in the slot to the left.

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This time LSU chooses to bring additional pressure, with the player lined up across from Lewis blitzing off the edge. This leave the LSU safety, number 26, in man coverage against Lewis. Lewis runs about four yards up-field before breaking off his route and looking back at Russell.

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This is a good example of how important it is not just for the quarterback to read the wide receiver, but also for the wide receiver to read the quarterback. It’s impossible for Lewis to know what the defender behind him is doing, so he must read his quarterback’s eyes. Russell can see that the defender is sitting to the outside, so his eyes bring Lewis to the middle of the field and the pass is on target for a nice gain.

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It’s important to realize that, in this case, his eyes are only helpful to his receiver and are not any giveaway to the defense. The defender guarding Lewis is in man coverage, and he can’t worry about where Lewis is going and where the quarterback is looking.

These are very difficult passing concepts to defend, and will put a lot of pressure on Alabama’s two slot corners – Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith – along with any linebackers and safeties who find themselves covering this part of the field. In the NFL, teams such as the Giants and Patriots have used these concepts as a central part of their offense, and they’ve enjoyed a great deal of success with them.

Despite the fact that he’s only 5’11", Lewis is also a threat down the field. Here’s video of him beating his defender and scoring a touchdown on a deep corner route.

But as I mentioned earlier, the player to watch down the field is De’Runnya Wilson. At 6’5" Russell and Prescott will not hesitate to throw into coverage, allowing their tall receiver to make a play on the ball. Here's video of Wilson having a 50/50 ball thrown his way, and out muscling the corner at the point of the catch.

Things will get much easier if Prescott doesn’t play, and I’ll provide updates in this post throughout the week about his availability. If he can’t go, the Mississippi State offense loses a significant dimension, and the Alabama defenders can simply pin their ears back and focus on getting after the quarterback on passing downs. But if Prescott can go, gap responsibility becomes extra important, and the threat of a big play increases exponentially. Prescott is the sort of dynamic player that, if he gets going, can put a top team on upset alert. I have a lot of confidence that the Alabama defense will not allow that to happen, but it’ll definitely be interesting to watch for it.

As far as personnel groupings go, Alabama will almost always have their nickel package on the field (that means a lot of Jarrick Williams), and will go to their dime package on most passing downs (Geno Smith). As great as Brandon Ivory was against LSU, this is the sort of game that just doesn’t fit his style, and I expect to see a lot of A’Shawn Robinson at defensive tackle along with Hubbard, Dickson, and Devall putting their hands on the ground and playing defensive end. Alabama has seen many teams quite similar to Mississippi State, so, from a schematics standpoint, they should be well prepared.

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