Know Thy Enemy: STATE

It’s game time baby and time to cut the silly shit and talk football.

Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State team is a classic Mullen team.  They live off the success of 3-4 plays that they rep and rep and rep some more.  It’s essentially option football.  If you stop their key plays, you totally limit what they do on offense. This is why you have seen them struggle mightly to generate points vs. Georgia and Auburn.  Both Georgia and Auburn had great success early in the game stopping the key plays that make up the base of Mullen’s offense.  This is no different than most college teams, but Mullen’s scheme is even more dependent on the ability to outnumber you in the box with his QB as a runner.  If you can limit the run, without committing an extra defender into the box, the Ags are going to be very well positioned to win this game.  That is the formula Auburn and Georgia used.  Can the Ags do the same?

Let’s take a look at some key plays you can expect to see a lot of on Saturday night.

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QB Power

I wrote about this in detail here.  This is a play they will run 8-10 times a game.  They like to run this out of single back and love it inside the red zone.  It’s simply designed to give them a numbers advantage in the run game.

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They also love to fake the QB power and throw the ball. Fitzgerald oversells this.  If you seem him take a deep squat, he’s going to pull up and throw it.

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Screen out of trips look. 

They love to split out their 6’5 275 lb TE, #83 Jordan Thomas, and let him lead block on this play.  It’s a play we should be well prepared for and something all teams run.  Armani Watts is one of the best in the game at getting down the alley and wrecking this play.  A&M’s corners, especially D-BONE Renfro, are good at getting off blocks on the perimeter.

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Read Option/Zone.  Again, I wrote about this in detail here.  Mullen has been running this play as THE foundation of his offense for 15+ years.  In fact, watch how he teaches it here with clips from the Ags vs. Utah 2003.  (vomit bags not included)

 

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Under Center Usually Means Play Action Pass

I don’t know if Mullen is setting up some specific things for later in the season.  But, thus far in the year, they are really predictable out of this look.  They are generally looking to get 1 on 1 coverage for #6 or #83 and throw the ball.

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Here #83 runs an out and up vs. man coverage.  Anytime they can get #83 in an easy to diagnose man look, he becomes their #1 passing target down the field.  He’s a very large man, but certainly isn’t a blazer.  STATE lacks a blazer on the perimeter which is why they are the worst team in the SEC in generating passing plays over 20 yards.  Despite having a top 20 national rushing offense, they don’t generate successful play action plays as much as you would expect, given Fitzgerald’s above average arm.

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Empty Sets: DRAW DRAW DRAW DRAW

State does not go 5 wide very often at all. When they do, you better spy Fitz.  They love to run qb draw out of empty.  In the above play vs Auburn, Fitz runs a called draw to the 1 yard line.

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Favorite Goal Line Changeup

In addition to zone and qb power, State loves to run this fake stretch bootleg concept on the goal line.  They will fake the stretch run to their back and then roll Fitz out behind the RB, while the RB runs a flood route.  The concept is meant to bait the flats defender to either come hit Fitz in the mouth leaving the RB or TE open for an easy catch or if the defenders stay in the flat, Fitz will turn it up field quickly and then you have to stop a 235 ball carrier with a full head of steam.  The AGs have struggled with similar plays this year, so expect to see this on Saturday night.

Factors that Will Determine the Game

State OL vs Ag DL. 

Teams that shutdown Mullen’s offense do it because their DL is good enough to shut down the bread and butter run plays with their front 4/5 defenders.  Isn’t this always the case in football?  Sure.  That’s why the big boys of SEC defense, Georgia, Bama, Auburn, and Florida have always done a great job of slowing down STATE’s offense.  Their DL controls the LOS and STATE’s passing game (outside of 2014) isn’t good enough to consistently move the ball.  I’d say based on 2017 results so far, that’s the case again this year.  They are #106 in passing offense for a reason.

Eyes of the Defense

Anytime you play an option football team, you have to be extremely sound in your assignment.  Their design to all about getting you out of position to gain leverage in numbers and angles to run the ball.  LSU was killed by this.  They lost their eyes all night and STATE made them pay.  Auburn and UGA did not and State didn’t do much of anything.  It’s really that important.  Devin White, LSU’s inside LB, was consistently out of position against STATE.  The AGs were burned badly by poor eyes and terrible assignment integrity in the 2016 game, so Mullen will test this early and often.

Corner play

STATE hasn’t shown the ability to beat man coverage with their WRs.  I expect Mullen to test our CBs early.  Why?  Because STATE was very conservative early vs Georgia and Auburn and got behind early.  I think Mullen comes out much more aggressive in this game and tests our corners in coverage.  I think he’ll respect A&M’s front enough to try and keep safeties out of the box.  I expect Chavis to come out with a lot of single high safety looks and force STATE to the air.  This will set up for Mullen to test Renfro and Oliver and whoever is at nickel.

 

 

The Eyes Chico, They Never Lie

One the the biggest struggles in the Ag passing game is related to Kellen Mond and his ability to get to his 2nd read quick enough to do damage down the field.  He’s locking in on his primary target and holding the ball too long, if the primary target is not overwhelmingly open.  To be fair, this has also helped him protect the ball and likely limit interceptions.  He’s been very good at not throwing the Ags OUT of the game.  But, as the competition steps up the next 2 weeks against STATE and Auburn, he’ll simply have to make more downfield throws.

These issues include pre-snap AND post-snap reads.  Let’s take a look at a pre-snap read first.

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Here Ags go 4 wide on 1st and 10.  South Carolina counters with what looks like Cover 4 (quarters).  Meaning the 2 corners and the 2 safeties are going to play their quarter of the field, with the nickel on the topside of the formation playing the flats.  What has also happened is USC has gone to a 3 down look, with 3 LBs.  The nearside outside LB also has flats responsibility.  This is not a base look for USC, so they have no doubt confused Mond pre-snap.

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What should be obvious here as Mond makes his pre-snap read is that Kirk is in a great position to generate an easy catch.  There is plenty of green grass for Kirk to settle in an area between the flats defender and the deep safety.   It’s likely the easiest throw on the field.

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This is a well-designed play vs. quarters coverage. In fact, Mazzone has probably called the nearside read.  The run action freezes both flats defenders.  Creating an easy opportunity for Buckley to find a soft spot in the flats for an easy completion.  Great call vs. Cover 4.  However, Kirk on the top side of the formation is in a much better position to generate a big play.  Not too mention, is a much more dangerous player in space than Buckley.  This isn’t an error by Mond, but simply a good play that probably could have been a great play with a more mature QB.

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If Kirk catches the ball in that position, he’s primed for a huge opportunity. But, if you watch the game, Mond’s eyes never even scan to his right.  He takes a quick glance left and then snaps the ball.  It’s safe to assume this is a called play by Mazzone and Mond is not reading his coverage.

Now, let’s look at a potential post snap read.

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This is the very next play.  USC has switched coverages again.  Muschamp was wise in the game and was switching his coverages basically every snap to confuse Mond.  This is common in the SEC.  It’s only unusual if a team in major football doesn’t switch coverages a boatload throughout the game.  It’s why it’s so critical for a QB and WRs to understand coverage.

USC is showing man free coverage here.  Man on the 4 WRs and a free safety in the middle of the field.  Generally, the patterns to beat this type of coverage will send 2 deep routes down the hashes to try and force that free safety to choose between WRs.  It should create a simple read for the QB. Also note the safety is 17 yards off the LOS.

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After the snap, the safety deepens to almost 20 yards.

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The deep middle is wide open, as both WRs have inside leverage on their DBs.  Obviously, there is a safety lurking, but he is very deep and there is a soft spot in the coverage to deliver the ball, if it comes out on time.  Also note that Mond has a decent pocket to throw from.  He is looking left all the way to Buckley, which should get the safety working that way.  If you watch mature QBs, they will work the safety one way with their eyes and then throw back to the opposite hash.  Classic QB move.  But, Mond kind of freezes and never gets his eyes back around to Kirk, until its way too late.

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For whatever reason, Mond doesn’t like what he sees and holds the ball for 4 seconds and then bails the pocket.  This is a classic case of not trusting his eyes and the coverage.  This should be an easy throw if the ball is delivered on time.  But, if you hold the ball, you run your WRs right into the safeties.  It’s self mutilation by a young QB.

Obviously, we don’t know how Mond is being coached on plays like this.  But, as the Ags enter the 2nd half of the season against some really stout run defenses it will be critical to hit a handful of these plays every game.

 

Why You Can’t Play Nickel vs 2 TE Sets

Unless you absolutely commit to getting a safety in the box and/or play a much bigger 5th DB, like Gary Patterson or Kyle Whittingham or Buddy Foster, et al.

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Bama comes out in a 1 TE/ 1 HB on 1st and 10.  There is a WR on each side of the formation. #11 at HB is Gehrig Dieter who plays a kind of flex TE role for Bama.  He’s not especially big, but this could easily be replicated with a true TE which will happen at different times in the game.  I chose this cut up because the view is so good.  Ags have nickel Donovan Wilson on the field.  Donovan is reduced into a LB position by alignment.  (I’m also not sure why Myles Garrett isn’t head up on the TE in this formation? But. impossible to know how he would be instructed in this situation)

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This creates a 1 on 1 situation with Dieter vs Dono.  Bama obviously likes this alignment.  Justin Evans is circled and he is unable to factor to the run game based on his position.  He is in no man’s land.  Unable to provide coverage help on the WR on that side and unable to provide much help in run plays.

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Wilson isn’t able to reduce the running lane at all.  (Shaan Washington doesn’t fare much better)

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All Dono can do is hold on and reach.  Because he just got pancaked! Meanwhile, Damien Harris is running full speed into the safeties. Have fun with that boys. Obviously, there are other things going on in this play that lead to a big gain.  But, the 3rd LB vs a 195 safety is the mismatch here that is readily observed.

Watch it Live at 3:06:

 

Early Look at the College Football Lines

Vegas Insider

I generally reference the Westgate lines.  Things that stand out:

Florida State at Boston College +3 in a Friday night game. 

Boston College last 3 games:

Lost 23-10 to a good Vtech at home

Beat Louisville 45-42 on road

Beat Virginia 41-10 on the road

Meanwhile FSU is struggling to score vs. anyone.

Penn state +6 at Ohio State

Penn state has the defense to stop Ohio State.

Cal +3 at Colorado

Colorado just doesnt have any offense.

Minnesota +8 at Iowa

Iowa struggles to score and Minnesota has a solid D

Texas at Baylor +8 

Texas just isn’t scoring.  Not sure Baylor can do anything offensively.

Clemson -14.5 vs Georgia Tech

Clemson comes off bye and has the Dtackles and speed to shut down the read option game.  I’d expect this line to be more like 17-19.  And I really think Georgia Tech is a good team, but think Clemson is probably a little cheap based on the Syracuse loss.

Southern Cal at Arizona State +3

USC still getting too much respect and Zona State too little.

 

Scouting STATE: Read Option

An absolute staple of the Mullen offense is the basic read option play, that of course damn near every team now runs.  Mullen was one of the first to embrace this concept, which is really just an option play out of a shotgun formation.  Most credit Rich Rodriguez to bringing the play to the masses, but I’m sure it was probably just ripped off from some derivation of something else that someone has been doing for 100 years.  In any event, State runs it really well and Fitzgerald reads the defensive end as well as anyone I’ve seen.  If he was just a little bit quicker, he’d be deadly, because he really makes that last second read as good as anyone I’ve watched.

Of course we all remember the first play of the game last year. Enjoy.

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State got the perfect look.  Ags come out in the base package with 2 high safeties.  State has a TE/HB, 1 RB.  That gives them potentially 7 players in the box to block for 1 ball carrier.  Ags have a 6 man box.

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The TE is going to come across the formation and read the DE.  He can either kick out the DE if he stays outside, or let him go and turn up field if the DE crashes inside.  This is exactly what happens.  And it’s off to the races for a 75 yard TD, untouched.

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State will run this play out of many formations.  2 TE, empty, 1 TE 1 HB.  Above they are aligned in a single back/1 TE set.  This is their most common package.   Notice in the above photo that the Ags go to a Bear front and a 7 man box.  But, on the nearside they also have 1 defender within 7 yards of the bunch formation.  What do you think State is about to do? If you answered throw a quick hitch for an easy 10 yards, you are correct! They do this a lot, they will certainly use those bunch formations as an easy audible depending on how the defense aligns.  If you keep your safeties high, your corner/nickel better be a beast in getting off blocks because they will throw this until you stop it.  On this particular play, DONO gets whipped by the split TE and it’s an easy gain. Note that they will keep their big TEs on the field and split them a lot for blocking advantage.

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Let’s look at another situation.  Same formation.  3 WRs, 1 TE/HB, 1 RB.  Keep in mind that TE is a 275 man.  He’s a really big guy.  Ags are in nickel base with Dono Wilson in the box.  Again, 2 safeties high.

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This time the TE leads to the strong side.  He simply gets up field and has a 1 on 1 block with DONO.  That’s 275 lbs on 200 lbs.  Daeshon Hall makes a bad read/blown assignment and jumps the RB.  I know we have coached our DEs in the past to attack the mesh point on this play, so I don’t know if this is a blown assignment by Hall or not.  But, the RB doesn’t have the ball.  Again, Fitz absolutely is fantastic at pulling the ball at the very last minute.  He’s good.

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He’s 10 yards down the field running right into those high safeties in no time.  Another easy, easy gain for State.  Of course State will throw out of this look and motion WRs and run end around, etc.  They are very versatile out of this base package as you’d expect for a great OC like Mullen. But, the bread and butter is still the read option.

If you want a perfect example of how assignment football, and damn stout DTs, can whip this play.  See Alabama and Johnny Allen below:

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Allen refuses to bite, trusting the interior to shut down the inside run, and smothers Fitz for a 2 yard loss.  I believe both Ag DEs are playing much better assignment football this year and should have more success stifling this play.  It helps that our DTs are playing really good football, because you need them to stuff the inside zone to force State into more predictable situations.