"They believe in their system, they execute very well, they like to try to control the tempo of the game." It's a scheme Mullen also calls "unique" in most aspects, since so few programs now are committed to true option offense. Though the MSU coach can call on a somewhat comparable experience of his own.
"It's similar to where the ‘spread' was six, seven years ago when very few people ran it. Now most teams run the spread, so defenses are more comfortable with it." Then again college defenses, and for that matter most BCS-league coaches, have so little experience playing against full-time option sets they aren't yet comfortable preparing for it. Much less their players. Which makes this an interesting week for State's staff in trying to expose Dog defenders to the major concepts of playing the dive, the pitch, the keeper, whatever can come once the ball is snapped and starts swinging one way or the other.
"With their scheme, our scout team has to do a great job simulating it," Mullen said. "And our defense has to play sound football, has to tackle and focus on fundamentals." For the initial round of defensive practices, freshman RB Montrell Conner—presumably a redshirt by now—takes on the role of Dwyer as a ‘big back' while walk-on QB Aaron Encalade will play athletic triggerman Nesbitt.
"But we'll use a couple of our other quarterbacks to try to simulate all the different problems they can pose for us," Mullen said.
Simulating how the Jackets attack the line of scrimmage, now, that might be even more challenging stuff to teach a scout squad to give the Dog defensive front a realistic look. Especially, DT Kyle Love says, how Tech blockers keep a low pad level firing off and then come at d-linemen from all different angles. "A lot is incorporated in that," the senior said, who saw it first-hand last year in Atlanta. Thing is, Love reports that '08 tape won't be used much to prepare for this rematch.
"Our whole thing this week is watch film on Miami because they did real good. We're going to try to do the same thing and shut them down." The Hurricanes held Tech to 95 rushing yards, where the other three foes have given up over 300 yards each.
Mullen affirms that such scouting is necessary and useful, on both defense and offense. "You're going to study and see what worked and what caused them issues, how that fits in to your system, how we can incorporate some of that into our system," he said. But the coach also offers a cautionary note that one team cannot necessarily take what another did and automatically translate it to their own gameplan.
"Is Miami making a play because of the player more than the scheme?" Mullen said. "It's making sure we don't get caught up in that and that our plan really suits our players."
One scheme State has come up with that definitely suits the Dog defensive line is a regular rotation, whether of three or four big bodies. This is no small factor in recent success controlling other ground games start-to-finish. "To me what you want is those guys play fresh. Play at an extremely high effort. To ask big men to go give that effort is hard for 70 plays in course of game. Make sure you have that depth and roll in those defensive linemen through."
READING ASSIGNMENTS: A year ago he was camped on the couch watching his squadmates get shredded on TV, unable to help with a broken ankle. Now MLB Jamar Chaney will get to test himself against the triple-option Tech attack. The senior did sit in on game-week prep last September before State's trip to Atlanta, offering what tips he could to outside LB Dominic Douglas who would make his first start at middle-man that contest. Chaney recalls the basics of that gameplan, with everyone at least a couple yards off the ball to presumably provide a little time to read the developing play.
"That didn't work at all. So that ain't what we're going to do this year."
Realistically, though, Chaney says schemes aren't really the key to preparing for a dedicated option offense. The themes this practice week are much more fundamental. The option, Chaney says, "forces you to play assignment football. If you don't play your assignment, they're going to gash you for a lot of yards. So you read your keys, and stay on the dude you're supposed to and everything else take care of itself."
Sounds simple enough, but of course it can't be. Otherwise everyone would shut down the dive, keep, or pitch plays. It's been a few generations but veteran Bulldog fans can recall how the triple-option ruled college football once, and how masters like John Bond and Don Smith operated on the edges. Mullen himself says how offensive football is cyclical and the wishbone will probably come back around eventually. At Georgia Tech it has already, albeit in an inverted ‘Y' set. The Yellow Jackets can make it work not just because they believe in the approach, but because so few defenses understand how an option goes against the grain of today's attitudes. Especially the big-hit mindset that can be embarrassed by a clever offensive read.
"That's how they get a lot of teams on defense, everybody trying to do somebody else's job," explains Chaney. "Then you have the quarterback, running back, somebody running 70 yards down the field." All because a single defender couldn't resist chasing the ball, or where he thought it was going. Thus all this week Dog defenders will have ‘assignment' pounded into their helmets.
"If you're got the dive, stay on the dive; if you've got the quarterback stay on the quarterback," Chaney says. "With all the movement they're doing when they snap the ball it's confusing to some defenses. Look at the tape last year, the plays they scored nobody touched them." Even at a distance it was painful for the linebacker to watch. But Chaney is remembering those bitter lessons, as well as looking for cues from the two televised Tech Thursday night games aired this September.
"We've watched them twice. But it's all about playing assignment football and running to the ball. The defensive end or linebacker if they don't do their job on any play it can result in a touchdown. That play in another offense it might just result in five yards, ten yards. But against a wishbone if you don't do your assignment it might be a 50-yard touchdown."
BALANCING THE OFFENSIVE ACT: In these past two weeks Mississippi State has come up with a revised plan that certainly suited its talents on the ground. After giving up a stunning 390 rushing yards at Auburn, the Dog defense shut down Vanderbilt with just 33 yards on 29 runs (including sacks and scrambles). But that was only prelude to a more impressive effort against LSU with only 30 yards allowed on 31 official run plays. Put another way, the Commodores and LSU Tigers combined for less ground-yards than Auburn was getting in most quarters. For that matter Jackson State had 62 net rush yards.
"We weren't very aggressive in the Auburn game and it showed," Mullen says. "For LSU we were in position to make plays. I think we've been more aggressive schematically and our guys have bought into what we're trying to do. The run defense is definitely going to have their hands full, it's a different scheme than we've faced the last few weeks. It's a unique scheme. But we're playing with some confidence and that has to continue."
That offers obvious encouragement preparing for an opponent that relies almost entirely on rushing the football. Georgia Tech has rushed 207 times in four games while throwing only 53 passes, a ratio almost unimaginable in today's college game.
By contrast State has run 185 times, passed 104. Even allowing for called passes that get checked or flushed into carries, it's not near the 50-50 ratio of run-throw that Mullen has spoken of as an ideal. In fact Mullen has flatly stated that the 2009 squad is "a running team" based on the current stronger points.
But the coach also continues developing the aerial aspects each week, within the context of alternating quarterbacks and even moreso varied abilities and experiences at receiver. "We still have a lot of challenges," Mullen says. "Installing a passing game is one of the harder things. It takes time for our quarterbacks, a lot of time it's the first time running this offense so every week scenarios and situations and looks come up that are the first time in game action."
Now it needs noting that even if the passing production this season isn't what Mullen wants, the Dog air game is already vastly improved over 2008. QB Tyson Lee is connecting on 50% of his throws; alternate Chris Relf 57.7%. Until the last game State was also positive in touchdown/interception rate; now it's break-even, something of great emphasis this week again.
Still there is so much still to be installed, and as Mullen said teaching time is limited in the college game. "The experience to call on, it's not there. We try to do as much as we can in practice with them but until they do it in a game, you don't get that true reaction sometimes."
Not that this offensive staff shies away from trying things anyway. Including gadget plays using young talent, like the option passes set up for WR Chad Bumphis—who got his quarterback turns in high school too. Neither has worked but both show promise for the future. Besides, Mullen just likes the confidence a kid like Bumphis has shown since arriving on campus.
"He made a lot of plays in high school, he's made some plays in college, and we're going to give him an opportunity to grow and develop." Ditto for many of his classmates at receiver, the offensive area where State needs to push the pace as much as possible this first year in a spread scheme.
"We do have a young team, young receivers out there right now, I'm not afraid to let them go make plays," Mullen said. "What we need to see is the continuing improvement in route-running, run-blocking, those are the steps we need to take. That's the natural ability, the coaching part is what we've got to get cleaned up."
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: With State having taken Monday off from work, Coach Dan Mullen called it a "good" practice after Tuesday's full-pads session with the emphasis of honing their gameplan on the offensive side of the gameplan being installed for Georgia Tech. "We've got to execute on offense. And be real disciplined on defense."…OG Tobias Smith reported to practice in a sleeve-type brace today, over the usual wrappings on the right ankle. Smith, the pre-season first right guard, has yet to play but has dressed for the last two games. His ankle continues to swell after practices…For the first few snaps of Tuesday's pre-practice defensive drills, redshirt freshmen Louis Watson and Corey Broomfield lined up at left and right cornerbacks. Usual starters Damein Anderson and Marcus Washington soon were back with the first defense at their same spots, but a starting job or even jobs appear still up for practice grabs this week…Washington's string of 17-straight starts is the longest on the 2009 roster…After leading the SEC in penalties and yardage through two games, the Bulldogs have bettered their behavior the last two contests with just 50 yards on five flags. In fact, foes now have drawn more penalties than State for the whole season, 31 to 27. But, when State get flagged it is usually a major penalty and the game-rate is still almost 73 yards-per.