Offense Exercising All Its Options

They're no threat to the great wishbone teams of the past. But these Bulldogs are showing a bit of a knack for some timely option football.

In that decisive fourth-quarter drive to turn a three-point lead into a 10-point victory, Mississippi State pulled out the run-option with Tyler Russell. Most notably, a third-down conversion early in the series when LaDarius Perkins got the pitch, shed a tackle and got to the marker. A couple of other examples weren't as dramatic, such as Russell keeping it himself and just falling forward when Mississippi State was burning the clock. The real implication was how well-timed such calls were, and should continue to be whenever defenses look vulnerable.

"You do that a couple of times in a ball game, that will keep people honest," said coordinator Les Koenning, himself a veteran of the 80s wishbone era. "Now the coverages become a little more bland and it becomes easier to throw the football."

Not that State had a lot of trouble tossing against Tennessee. The 39 total throws—37 by Russell for a career-best 291 yards and two more by Dak Prescott, both completed for 13 yards including a touchdown—produced 308 yards. It was the first 300-plus passing day by a Bulldog offense since 2007, and unlike that game against Arkansas it wasn't out of forced necessity.

It was by opportunity. Tennessee was so concerned with the ground game they gave Russell excellent opportunities to look and fire. Fire downfield, too. Much like at Kentucky a week before, Bulldog passing plans are much, much more ‘vertical' these days. Even throws to backs aren't nearly so much backfield dump-offs but real downfield patterns.

One good measure: the typical gain per-grab in the last two SEC wins were 11.7 and 12.3 yards respectively. For that matter, while Russell had a self-admitted off night against South Alabama, his 14.3-yard gain on good throws showed how aggressive this gameplan is in the air. And at Troy? Russell's caught balls went for an average, average of 22 yards.

The quarterback will quickly share credit with the core ground game of course. Straight handoffs to Perkins have been plenty productive too and already have defenses stacking inside and leaving receivers with promising matchups downfield. Throw in, so to speak, the option threat and as Koenning noted coverage is even more compromised.

Besides, there is a fellow reading those coverages and finding available targets who is just now coming into his prime. Four years working with Russell has Koenning appreciating how the quarterback has matured, right on schedule. "And he's now taking those calculated risks, playing with some confidence," the coach said.

"There's a fine line between arrogance and confidence, and he's got that confidence."

It's established college football mythology, the idea of ‘making them run' after a bad (pick one) game, practice, or incident. Well, there is some truth to it all at Mississippi State. Not just how Dan Mullen makes the losing team run gassers after a ‘lost' scrimmage, either. Back in August, Koenning and Russell had some preseason bonding time on the run.

During that long week of training camp on south campus, there might be a day Russell didn't perform to demand. The result? "We didn't drive back from the Farm," Koenning said. "We ran back." While that might not sound like much at some schools, remember: A) the Farm field is over a mile away from State's locker room; and B) Koenning is very proud of his fast footwork. The former University of Texas (Class of '81) receiver not only likes to sprint with his wideouts, but show he can grind out longer jogs.

So it couldn't have been much fun for Russell after a hot day's work to keep Koenning's pace. "I got a point across!" the coach grins.

For his part Russell is making a point too this season, that he can't be dismissed by defenses as only a pocket passer. He's shown exemplary new touch on roll-out plays, mostly to the right (throwing) side, buying time for targets. And of course there is the occasional keeper, whether called from the sideline or in the huddle, now amplified by options.

Russell is now on the run, so to speak. Such as on State's clutch touchdown drive at Troy in the fourth quarter, when instead of handing off to Perkins—as the Trojans clearly expected—Russell read right and kept left for a 20-yard gain.

"He read it, pulled it, and went," Koenning said. "The one thing that happens so often to defenses is they get lulled to sleep." Well, in their so-to-speak defense, Russell's reputation as a runner has not exactly preceded him. And after years of watching for Chris Relf, well, small wonder they perceive Russell as a thrower-only.

To their detriment. "He's faster than what you think he is," Koenning said. "Now, we don't let him think that, we like to pick at him! But he's faster, and he takes pride in it. He really does. And I will say that was a big turning-point in the game, reading it and taking it was very good judgment by him."

Not to say Russell will run nearly as often as Relf did. But it's nice to know he can haul at need if it shades one potential tackler a step farther from wherever Perkins intend to attack. Besides, Prescott is a runner more in the Relf mode…but a far more advanced passer already in his own right. None were surprised, on either sideline, when the freshman entered for called keepers and drive-extending rushes Saturday night.

But the Vols and maybe even a lot of home fans too were startled when Prescott pulled back on an obvious 2nd-and-4 running situation at the Tennessee 13-yard line. His play-fake was as pretty as anything Russell has shown, and his pass to an utterly open Marcus Green in the end zone was a thing of beauty.

So now how does a defense gameplan for State? Not only can the veteran quarterback respected for his arm do a little running as needed; the newer guy known for his footwork suddenly shows a fine passing touch too. It all amplifies the offensive trend of these past two victories. At Kentucky the play totals broke down exactly even with 39 rushes and passes apiece; against Tennessee it was 41 rushes and 39 throws.

Another set of numbers might make an even better indicator of Bulldog offensive progress and prowess. In their three SEC wins so far, State has recorded 49 plays that produced ten or more yards of gain. Against Auburn it was 15 such plays, at Kentucky 14 more; and in a bigger breakout against the Volunteers the Bulldogs turned twenty of their 80 official offensive snaps into double-digit gains.

Options? Call this a case of opportunities.

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