Steve Robertson -

Mullen Looking for More and More Productive Use of State Ground Game

Last week the very word ‘balance’ was dismissed. A week later, it is a goal. Never say Mississippi State refuses to adjust to a long season’s changing circumstances.

Especially as Coach Dan Mullen seeks more and more efficient production from his ground game. “We want to keep progressing,” Mullen said Monday. “I want to be balanced.”

The comment came seven days after the head coach commented that in offensive meetings the idea of balance was never raised. Then Mississippi State got the most balanced offensive evening of the schedule so far at Texas A&M. The Bulldogs rushed for 196 yards on 34 carries, called or created or forced; and passed for 210 yards on, yes, another 34 snaps.

That’s about as balanced as things can get, right? However it is too easy to read too much into results, without knowing what the actual gameplan called for. The same applies to entire seasons, too. “There are years we run more than we throw,” Mullen reminded.

As to specific games, though, “Sometimes that is situation-oriented. An ideal day is 50/50, run/pass with 40-something points and 500-something yards on offense, with a pretty even balance between the two.”

Remember, Mullen was talking in ideal terms. SEC reality is usually different.

What 2015 has proven is that ‘balance’ is a fine idea and a fickle definition. The obvious fact is that this offense’s strengths, obvious as early as spring training, is in the air attack. With All-SEC Dak Prescott intentionally developing from a power-running quarterback into a read-and-progression passer, a bias to throwing the ball was inevitable.

Imperative even, as an exceptional collection of wide and tight receivers do their half of the throw-and-catch equation. For Mullen and MSU to ignore the passing potential in this roster in the name of balance would be dangerous, even dereliction of Dog duty.

However… All fans knew from year-one Mullen’s heart is in pounding the ground, grinding down defenses and clocks alike; then getting those isolations in-space whether handing off or throwing. Ideally, that is. For four games State was only average, if that, at running efficiently. And the time-of-possession was dangerously out of whack, with uncomfortable implications for Dog defenders with too many minutes on the field.

Though State came up short at College Station, there were signs of a balancing act. Such as a season-most 18 carries for Prescott…though some were scrambles and twice he was sacked. As to keeping so often by choice or necessity, “I guess a little bit of both,” Prescott said. “They were giving us the quarterback run. And I know I have to get the run game going.”

Even Saturday’s rushing yards come with a qualifier. Over a quarter of the gains came on one great big burst, and by a receiver at that. Malik Dear turned a slot end-around into a 52-yard touchdown which showed not just what the freshman flash can do but what the whole running game is capable of…when it hits the right call at the right situation.

And, with the right runner. Which has become the hottest of Mississippi State topics. The rushing results have been balanced, but not in a good way. Brandon Holloway has 139 yards on 23 carries; Ashton Shumpert 145 on 36 runs. Comparing year to year is risky but it’s hard to ignore that all those totals in five games would have been one good game in 2014 for Prescott or Josh Robinson. Or both.

Put another way, when a young receiver is the most explosive runner in the regular lineup, it should signal some sorts of changes are ahead. That could mean shifting the balance of snaps and rushes among the veteran backs; taking turns away from them to put second-year freshmen Dontavian Lee and Aeris Williams on the field more; or just telling Prescott to pound and punish defenses himself.

Or, even, moving Dear into the backfield directly. Though, the ankle injury to Gabe Myles may take him out of the slot receiver rotation for a while, and keep Dear in his primary 2015 position. Mullen gave no real hints Monday which way he and run game coordinator John Hevesy are leaning. He did say plans are to keep playing the current regulars but also use the younger backs to increase their comfort level.

Then again, Mullen might have also meant he wants results to increase the comfort level State’s staff has in playing the pups more once SEC season returns October 24. How the overall offense and the run-touches are balanced will be well-worth-watching during the upcoming non-conference home games with Troy and Louisiana Tech.

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