When we ran Perkins up the middle . . . for the third time in a row . . . on 3rd and 8, the string of expletives I unfurled was transcendent. Not because it was remarkably dissimilar from the invectives I typically direct toward the tiny men on my television who refuse to perform the simple tasks I ask of them. Rather, I could feel that my sudden outburst was part of an in-unison chorus of obscenities shouted in homes scattered around the South. Wives left rooms, domesticated animals cowered under couches, and children widened their eyes in awe—all because Mississippi State took a massive poo on the field.
What was happening? The defense, including an essentially new defensive backfield, was doing the unthinkable by holding one of the nation's most potent offenses in check. But our veteran offensive line, our 5th-year-senior quarterback, our tested stable of running backs, and our allegedly re-tooled offense were just out there floundering on national television. And this was occurring against one of those oft-maligned "Big 12 defenses," no less.
After suffering through this offensive debacle that was MSU's season opener, we've all spent the past week confounded by the sheer absurdity of what we witnessed. We've repeated past concerns about our starting quarterback's ability to fit Mullen's system. We've discussed the horrendous play-calling and the respective roles our offensive coaches play making those decisions. And we've wondered why the supposed strengths of the unit—the line and the running backs—aren't being utilized in plays and formations that make them the focal point of our attack.
And we've done this with good reason. Surely the team that dropped 52 on Michigan and went toe-to-toe with Petrino's 2010 Arkansas squad was no aberration. Mullen is an offense-minded coach, after all. His hire was in large part marked by his dedication to install the famed spread offense that he and Urban Meyer used to race through the coaching ranks from the middle of the mid-majors to the top of the SEC. And after seeing Relf and Ballard run all over most teams we played, it looked like that was exactly what we were going to get.
So what's the deal? What happened after the apparent breakthrough in 2010? Sure, we had some solid games 2012, but the late collapse was so bad that whatever progress was made seemed to pale in comparison to where we had fallen by season's end.
In searching for answers to these questions, I took a brief foray into the nebulous realm of statistics. Now, I'm not a student of the game or of the stats that swirl around it. In fact, it's probably more appropriate to say that I know of stats than to say that I know anything about them. But some do seem fairly self-explanatory, such as those metrics that show how much your team scored, how much it allowed others to score, and how many yards it gained and allowed. (You know, because when you score more points than the other team, you win.)
And in my meanderings, I happened upon some numbers that gave me pause. Not pause to overlook the massive deficiencies in the offense's opening effort; but rather pause to reconsider the presumptions that informed my point of departure.
Essentially, when I looked back at our offensive stats in Mullen's four years, I didn't see what I was expecting to see. Our banner year in 2010? In conference play, we were 11th in both scoring offense and total offense:
Not only are these ranks far lower than I for whatever reason assumed they would be, but they are actually the worst of Mullen's career at State. Yes, even in 2009 we were a little better among our SEC peers in these categories, only one season removed from the last of the Croom years: we were 7th in scoring offense, and 9th in total offense. And yes, we were even better in our two-SEC-win 2011 season, when we were 9th in both categories. (Though admittedly we improved only by comparison to those around us. Like many other teams in the conference that year, our actual scoring and yardage numbers were down from 2010.)
2012, on the other hand, saw actual offensive improvement. State finished 8th in scoring offense and 7th in total offense (though now out of fourteen teams instead of twelve):
Looking at these statistics all together, it occurred to me that one of my preconceptions—that the 2010 magic was lost and needed to be regained—was problematic. Simply put, that year's offense, at least in the context of SEC play, may have been the worst Mullen has fielded so far. (I should note that the 2010 team was better at scoring TDs on red zone trips than any other in Mullen's tenure. Once in the red zone, it scored TDs 60% of the time, and the next closest team was 2012, when the rate was slightly above 56%. But to be fair, the 2012 team got to the red zone in SEC games 50% more often that the 2010 team. In fact, the 2010 team was 11th in the conference in number of red zone trips, while the 2012 was 5th.)
So what does all this mean? What was it about 2010 that made it seem so different—in a good way—from 2012? Perhaps it was the way the two seasons ended. Winning the rivalry game and a New Years' Day bowl on the one hand, and losing five of the last six (a few in tremendously bad fashion) on the other.
But there's another thing to remember as we're replaying the OSU game in our minds, wondering what happened to the offense we saw in 2010 that led us to a Gator Bowl rout. Without a remarkably stout defense, that offense likely wouldn't have led us to much of anything at all:
So I guess now, after fumbling through numbers I only vaguely understand, I'm left with a set of questions different than those I had when I started. Rather than wondering what happened to our 2010 offense, I'm wondering what happened to 2012's offense after an entire off-season to refine, re-work, and remake itself after getting shut down by a couple of the conference's heavy-hitters. I'm wondering what happened to the offense that gashed LSU for 300 yards passing and that, with a better plan for converting 3rd downs (2-24 on 3rd downs in the Egg and Gator Bowls last year—yikes), could've won another game or two. And I'm wondering why our play-calling seems stuck in 2005 when we have a couple of quarterbacks that, between the two of them, should be able to run just about any offense available to college football teams not named Alabama.
All that said, we're of course only one game in. And, no, the sky isn't actually going to fall. We lost a game to a heavily favored top-15 opponent, and did so in a bizarre and unexpected fashion. So it goes. Next up: Alcorn. A nice FCS pick-me-up before conference play. We'll all cheer on Dak and the rest of the offense, hope that Tyler recovers from his injury, and look for sparks (or maybe a pulse?) from the offensive gameplan.
And perhaps most of all, we'll watch with cautious but gleeful optimism that the defense, maybe, just maybe, is on the path back to where it was headed in 2010.
[all stats screenshots used above are courtesy of the good people (or number-crunching robots) at www.cfbstats.com]