2009, Dan Mullen’s first season at Mississippi State, feels like forever ago. That season, Mullen used holdovers from the Croom years as well as a few young players to patch together a team that dang near made a bowl game. While there were certainly ups and downs from that year (hi, LSU game ending!), there were plenty of postives to take away from that first season. That includes some offensive formations that I believe can help MSU win, right now, in 2016.
(But first, a quick note: I am not an offensive coordinator. I am not, nor have I ever been, a football coach. I barely played football as a youngster. So the recommendations I make herein are solely based on what I see as a fan. Although, if Mullen wants to hire me, I mean, I could free some time up.)
Before we get into the specific formations, let’s go back to that game. The year is 2009, and a 4-7 MSU team is getting ready to face off against an 8-3 Ole Miss team. State had been oh so close in several games, but would ultimately be playing for just pride and rivalry on that day. By this point in the season, MSU is utilizing two distinctly different QBs for two different reasons. There was Tyson Lee, the game manager and more passing-oriented QB. Then there was Chris Relf, a battering ram dressed as a signal caller that was brought in to run the option.
What we would ultimately see that day, especially in the second half of the game, is an offense that ran (pun intended) through the ground game, namely the option with Chris Relf. On the day, MSU would pile up 317 rushing yards on 59 (!) carries. While the number of carries may lead you to think this was strictly a quantity over quality day, MSU did still average 5.4 yards per rush despite the barrage of rushing attempts.
By game’s end, State had used those numbers and a few key defensive plays to win, 41-27. In re-watching the game (thanks, YouTube) recently, two formations really stood out. They stood out, not only because of the success they had back then, but how I feel like they would perfectly fit the personnel MSU has in 2017.
2 RB, 3 Wide
We pick up the video at the 39:52 mark, with MSU down 13-10 as the second half gets underway. State is driving, currently at midfield, and on first down, they come out in a two-back, three-wide set (shown as the header photo). The play would net 20 yards on a Chris Relf option keeper, but what’s important here are the options (literally) you have as rushing offense in this formation.
As Mullen’s offenses have become more passing-advanced (aka when Dak took over), this formation seemed to have been phased out. However, consider the personnel State currently has:
- QB - Nick Fitzgerald is a talented runner. This fact was clearly showcased last week when he broke MSU’s record for rushing yards in a game by a QB. While he’s less battering ram and more graceful deer as a runner, his running ability is what makes the defense have to respect all three options when running triple option from this formation.
- RB - State has a logjam of talented running backs this season, with a need to get them on the field in more opportunities.
In using this formation, you take the read option MSU is already using regularly (think last week’s second half, Fitz giving to Holloway 10+ times) and expand your options by one. You also allow yourself the opportunity to get RBs like Ashton Shumpert or Aeris Williams on the field, possibly at the same time. Also, wasn’t Fitzgerald a HS option QB?
Even if he wasn’t, he has experience in the Mullen system, which means he knows the basics of the option. It’s my belief that with a young QB and loads of talent at RB, the offense should flow through the run, meaning a solid rushing attack is essential. When you can’t run the ball effectively, you put a ton of pressure on a young QB, one that is getting ready for his first road start in a loud, loud stadium. Would you prefer 3rd and 8 for your young QB, or 3rd and 2?
The bonus of using the two back set to run heavy on options, counters, and other runs is that you also have the pass option with Fitzgerald. Where Relf did not have the passing abilities to make a defensive respect the downfield threat, Fitzgerald can. Therefore, this formation works better as the defense is forced to respect things beyond the LOS.
Oh and also, State could mix in a few Ross’, Gray’s, et al. downfield to truly open things up.
5 Wide (RB motion)
If you read the above, it tends to lean towards favoring heavy doses of Shumpert and Williams. Why am I completely ignoring the talents of one Brandon Holloway, you ask? I’m not; let’s get to the formation for him.
Just a few plays later in the same 2009 Egg Bowl, Tyson Lee reentered for Relf and State lined up in a five wide set. As they did often in the early years, State had one running back (or a Brandon Heavens) lined up wide, and that RB would come in motion. On the particular Egg Bowl play, Boobie Dixon went in motion behind Lee and they ran option. The play was moderately successful, but the point is this: Boobie was already in motion (not flat footed) and out in space when the ball was snapped.
Now picture that with Brandon Holloway. In this scenario, you’d be placing one of your fastest players in motion and getting him immediately out into space. The great thing, too, is that this formation is more than just for the option: you can run a jet sweep, a swing pass, or run the dang wheel route and let it fly as Holloway streaks up the hash.
This sort of formation would also lend itself to placing other hybrid RB/WR talents on MSU’s roster such as Malik Dear and Keith Mixon in prime position to make plays.
More specifically for Holloway, though, in this formation you’ve moved him outside the tackle box where he can do the most damage. We saw, especially late last year, that Holloway can be so, so good when he gets the ball in space. People want to beat up on his inside running so far this year, but the man is simply doing what is asked of him in the offense. This formation gives Brandon a better opportunity to shine through by tailoring offense more to his talents.
This is the point where I again stress that I am not a coach for Mississippi State football, nor do I think I know better than them. Sometimes as fans we get frustrated, wondering why a coach can’t see what we see. But often times, there are reasons for why they shy away from what we as fans want.
Though it may seem like I'm asking a lot, think of it this way: I’m not asking Dan Mullen to reinvent his offensive wheel. He already has these formations somewhere in his playbook, they’ve just been tucked in the back in awhile. It’s like if Blue Oyster Cult toured for a bit without playing Don’t Fear the Reaper because the cowbell player was sick. They still know the song, and now that Will Ferrell is feeling better, it’s time to play it again.
That’s all I’m asking, Coach Mullen. Just let Nick Fitzgerald, Aeris and Shump play the heck out of that cowbell tonight.
Yes, I am comfortable ending this post with that poorly constructed clanga metaphor.