Bulldog Offense Prepped For Michigan Scheme

After a quarter-century or so in the business there aren't many defensive alignments Les Koenning has not prepared for. But as familiar as the Mississippi State coordinator may be with most any system, his Bulldog offense will themselves see something a little different when those fellows in maize-and-blue take their Saturday stances.

"You know, they're an odd-stack football team," Koenning said. Odd not as in strange but the three-lineman base that Michigan builds around. Then again there is something a bit ‘odd' to the standard 3-3-5 formation to Mississippi State's experience. It is the full-time approach Michigan takes to defense and that, Koenning noted, is indeed different from the Bulldog norm.

"We see a lot of the odd-stack on third down, most everyone in the SEC carries some form of the odd-package on third down," he explained. "They're just in it on first and second down too! And they don't substitute."

Which means the Bulldog offense has to be ready to read the sort of scheme they're used to facing in conversion situations as an every-snap matter of fact. Michigan will alter that set in some sense, moving up a linebacker say as an extra end-type and at least giving an even-front look. Still the core remains three big bodies centered around the ball and a lot of ‘backers and safeties flying up in fast support.

In a sense Koenning has had to turn-around how quarterbacks Chris Relf and Tyler Russell are supposed to see things. As he said, the set-up itself is not new; just how the Wolverines want to work it. And coming after a long season of walking up to the line on the first snap of a series with four true linemen to account for, now Relf and Russell must reverse their thinking. Not to mention reading.

"Most teams in the SEC we have faced have been four-down people," Koenning said. "They're a three-down people and intermingle four with it, just a little opposite. It's not that they do anything that other people don't do, they just do it with their primary emphasis on the three-down and secondary emphasis on four-down."

The odd-stack approach is very much in keeping with how Coach Rich Rodriguez has changed almost everything about Michigan football. Obviously their fast, even frenzied offensive ideas grab headlines outside Big Ten (plus 1 plus another 1 next year) country. Here in year-three the former West Virginia coach's spread-option attack has finally blossomed thanks to having the correct quarterback and Michigan can put up points with most anyone.

But he's also converted what old-timers recall as big, physical, and a bit stolid Michigan defense to a similar hurry-hurry gameplan. Results there are much less impressive based on yards and points allowed, and assuredly do not fit classic conference stereotypes. Still it is an aggressive way to play and that, Koenning said, makes sense.

"I think that's Rich's philosophy. I mean, when Coach Rodriguez was at West Virginia you could tell he wanted a tempo offense that wanted to get you on your heels." And, by extension, a defense that kept that same sort of tempo which is really the issue here more than the actual alignment.

Koenning has visited with the Michigan coach and staff when they were at West Virginia, back when Coach Dan Mullen was getting his own new State staff introduced to various ideas of how to play the spread offense. In this case, a more ground-bound sort of spread which is in keeping with how Mullen operated at Florida before.

"And when you say the word ‘spread' it means so many different things," said Koenning, who himself has experience with everything from classic ‘I' to pro-style to true wishbone and veer. The latter, in fact, has increasingly been recognized as an original source for today's spread-option, just without the delay of a center-exchange and handoff.

Besides, this former wide receiver pointed out, titles and alignments aren't as important as media and fans want to think in picking a system. "The spread is really, really what your quarterback can do. Obviously we're a different type of spread than they (Michigan) are with Chris Relf." Indeed, because where Wolverine Denard Robinson is a skittering speedster who makes tacklers miss, the 245-pound Relf runs through or just over defenders.

Either way, it's the same ‘spread' idea of getting a playmaker matched one-on-one somewhere. Koenning has picked it up nicely in two seasons with Mullen, but more to the point so has fourth-year junior Relf.

"As an offense you utilize your personnel," Koenning said. "You know, I look at all these coaching changes all over the country and guys say I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. Well, if you don't have the people to do that it's not very smart! I mean, Dan and we have been very flexible in our system and have quarterbacks that can do different things, different backs and receivers we've going to utilize the talents on the field. That's how you become successful."

Relf has certainly been a Bulldog success story this year, running for 683 yards and four touchdowns while throwing for 1,508 and 10 more scores. Against, it needs noting, just five interceptions. It's been a while since a Bulldog quarterback has doubled his TD-to-INT rate for a regular season, and folk who questioned Relf's aptitude for the passing game are now a whole lot quieter. Especially after he threw for 288 yards and three scores in the Egg Bowl.

Besides earning his second win over Ole Miss, it was a reminder of how far Relf has come in two seasons with this coaching staff and this offense. In 2009 Relf took over in the second quarter and ran over the Rebels; this year in Oxford he did break a huge second-quarter rush to set up State's first score, but otherwise the legs weren't there. "He was pretty beat-up," Koening said. "I don't know if you saw but a couple of times he fell down and I'd ask what's wrong with you? He'd say Coach, my legs are beat-up, I can't go!"

But he could throw and was 13-of-20. That included both a standard deep strike down the middle, along with a beautiful delayed screen to LaDarius Perkins that broke things open for good. This is how the entire State offense has developed, said Koenning, with emphasis on—yes—what the quarterback can do.

"All of a sudden you put him in that position and he knows what to do, and he's more comfortable doing it. Last year when we played Ole Miss we ran the triple-option; this year we threw it. So any time you can have that versatility in your offense you've got a chance to win." And, he can add, any time a quarterback can inspire his squad by personal example. "If you don't show toughness at that position your teammates aren't going to follow you, it's as simple as that."

Relf has used a soft bowl camp and the practice days in Jacksonville to get over a variety of November aches and ills, including that cranky hamstring. Though, Koenning joked, he had another motivation beyond just wanting to take the Gator Bowl stage at full-speed.

"The competition with Tyler and Dylan Favre has been unreal. Any time you can have that in a position it's going to make you better. Chris has been a little beat-up , he looks over there and two guys are moving the team down the field…they get well quick!" Then again the quarterback coach and coordinator can't escape another aspect of his job: worrying about rust on his two quarterbacks with the long game-layoff since leaving Oxford.

"You're dog-gone right I'm concerned! There's a fine line between getting well and losing timing. Those are two things that you're really concerned about as a coach. And if it was a mature football team you wouldn't worry about it; when you've got young guys in a lot of positions sometimes you can't just go out there and turn it on. You have to go over it and over and over again."

And, go over and over how to attack Michigan's different sort of defensive set. Mississippi State was to have a final couple of brush-ups for their New Years Day matchup with Thursday and Friday practices. Meanwhile the Wolverines have done their own homework on how to handle a big, harder-hitting quarterback than they're used to seeing, as well as a variety of Bulldog backs who have their own skill sets. Oh, and there's one stat-fact that should give a team which plays third-down defense as an every-down fact pause.

See, during the season Mississippi State converted third downs successfully 45% of the time.

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