It was on tape, somewhere, but that's the only thing the two coaching staffs could agree upon. Oklahoma State's sudden departure from one of the most potent passing offenses in the country to a triple-option running attack had some precedent. Just where it came from is the debate.
"We saw their offensive coordinator run it at … California, was it? Ship? I knew it was one of the Pennsylvania schools," Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said in the post-game press conference
Mullen and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said it came from Division II Shippensburg University, where new Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich spent last season calling plays.
"Watching the film on them, it was stuff that he had done [at Shippensburg] that they had brought out. We had seen it and looked at it, I just think that out of different formations we didn’t do a good enough job of adjusting fast enough," Mullen said.
It's often called diamond or full house. Yurcich and the Cowboys call it trey. Saturday's iteration featured two tailbacks and one fullback aligned in a triangle around mobile quarterback J.W. Walsh. In his first game coaching at the FBS level -- for a BCS title contender and the preseason favorite to win the Big 12, to boot -- Yurcich deflected credit.
"We didn't run any trey package [at Shippensburg]. We've had that formation as part of our offense here at Oklahoma State," Yurich insisted. He did concede that OSU's most successful play of the day, an inside zone read, was new to OSU when run out of the diamond.
"That San Francisco 49ers running stuff," Collins said after the game.
Collins stands in the tunnels beneath Reliant Stadium as players board buses to leave. Collins is lost in thought, still so obviously working out the now-completed game.
"It's in there, on the Ship film," he concludes.
The Cowboys would rush for 286 total yards, their second-highest total against a BCS-conference opponent since 2010, giving Oklahoma State a 21-3 opening weekend win over Mississippi State. The win marked the school's ninth win in its last 10 games against SEC opponents and cemented the sophomore Walsh as the latest quarterback in Mike Gundy's vaunted offense.
But running the ball isn't what's unusual for Oklahoma State. While the Cowboys have run a balanced offense for years now, they lacked a passing game on Saturday. OSU posted alarming lows in passing production and points scored (146 yards is the lowest passing total for Oklahoma State since 2009). But those stats help tell the story of how the more mobile Walsh (2012: 1,564 yards passing, 13 touchdowns, 170.11 efficiency rating) took the starter's job from senior Clint Chelf (2012: 1,588 yards, 15 touchdowns, 155.31 rating).
It's a story less about competition and more about opportunity. Weighing heavily in the favor of Walsh was a Mississippi State defensive game plan that would force OSU to adopt a bold new look on the fly after the standard disappeared.
It's just under two weeks before the game.
Collins and the defensive staff -- assistant head coach Tony Hughes, corners coach Deshea Townsend, and defensive line coach David Turner -- are flanked by grad assistants and floor-to-ceiling whiteboards in the Bulldogs' defensive war room. One entire wall is dedicated to what Collins calls Oklahoma State's "window dressing," its many, many sets of formations that vary in personnel.
They're culling a plan with defensive formations they feel will apply to each variety of the opponent's "window dressing." Most of the time between now and gameday will be spent boiling down Oklahoma State's varied looks to groups of tendencies based on personnel. Players will study iPads loaded with videos and diagrams overdubbed with coaches' narration.
Mississippi State entered 2013 picked by most to finish last in the SEC West, while the Cowboys are the preseason favorite to win the Big 12. Yet the old-fashioned SEC is at the heart of MSU's battle plan. Run the ball, control the clock, and create pressure that starts with (and sometimes relies solely upon) a nasty front four: tackles P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls, defensive ends Denico Autry and Preston Smith, and heralded true freshman Chris Jones, a five-star end from Houston, Miss., for whom MSU won a brutal battle with Ole Miss.
"We've been saying around here: Houston, Texas, won't be like Houston, Mississippi, but he'll play. We're already excited about what he can provide."
The broad strokes of Collins' plan against Oklahoma State are as follows: create a variety of pressures on the quarterback to limit his time in the pocket, take away the Cowboys' varied screens and quick passes by nullifying them to short gains, and most importantly, keep the pace mentally as much as physically.
"When we do blitz, that everybody’s executing the blitz properly [is key]," Collins says. "The advantage they have over you is that they go so fast, if you mess up in one run fit, it’s 60 yards. When you blitz, you’re expected to blitz in all the right gaps. Well, if somebody doesn’t execute or misses a gap, and that’s the one they go to, you’ve compounded the problem."
This a practice refined by experience. Collins, nicknamed in his official university bio "The Minister of Mayhem," came to MSU in 2012 from Florida International, then a member of the up-tempo Sun Belt. Offenses pushing total plays and not huddling wasn't an exception, it was the norm.
"That was a great experience for me, no doubt. The other thing is that our offensive coordinator was Scott Satterfield [now the head coach of Appalachian State]. Scott and Chip Kelly are great friends, so in practice every day for a year, I faced that offense."
Every offense runs through particular playmakers, and here the MSU coaches have two breakdowns on the board: No. 5, preseason All-Big 12 wide receiver Josh Stewart, and No. 9, senior fullback Kye Staley.
"5 is just highly productive. He’s a great route runner, great in space, great with the ball in his hands. 9 follows the ball. He’s a guy who stands out on tape because he’s so physical, such a dominant blocker. Our kids notice him because he’s so hard and so physical. He plays like our kids do. Physical, tough, tenacious," Collins says.
"With this kind of offense they have so many weapons. So a lot of the coverage concepts that you want to do that just solely focus on 5, you can't."
Planning for an already intricate offense with a brand new coordinator is daunting, but the consensus in the MSU war room is that Yurcich will adhere to OSU's system and not the other way around. Still, there's Shippensburg film on the hard drive, right next to OSU's 2012 season.
Clint Chelf, running the 2012 Oklahoma State offense, which ranked No. 22 in pass attempts and No. 39 in rushes. Cowboys quarterbacks ran only 69 times all last year. J.W. Walsh ran 13 times against Mississippi State. Cooper Neill, Getty Images.
The Chelf vs. Walsh debated has raged through Cowboy country during the offseason, but MSU prepared for either to start. It's yet another example of why the Nick Sabans of the world provide next to nothing in press conferences. In addition to endless amounts of game film, MSU GAs are breaking down media reports from Stillwater.
"Somebody just released that there are no backup quarterbacks in this game," Collins says while reading a computer screen in his office later in the day. "That's what Gundy said, that they're both playing."
Oklahoma State drive No. 1: Three plays, nine yards, punt.
Mississippi State wins the toss and elects to receive, thus letting the defense start the day with a 3-0 lead and more than six minutes off the clock. Chelf has been named the starting quarterback moments before the game, but the Bulldogs won't give the senior quarterback the ball until the 8:38 mark of the first. Mississippi State starting running back LaDarius Perkins will be the Bulldog defense's 12th man. If he can grind up yards and clock, he'll keep a blitzing front seven fresh.
Oklahoma State quickly goes three and out. Chelf's off-target on a quick screen to running back Jeremy Smith, and on third down Collins dials up his first blitz of the day, a five-man rush that also manages to keep contain on a pitch out to Smith. OSU is forced to punt on fourth-and-one, and Perkins immediately breaks for 19- and 22-yard gains on back-to-back runs. The Dogs are grinding, but three plays later quarterback Tyler Russell's pass is deflected for an interception.
Oklahoma State drive No. 2: Four plays, 12 yards, punt.
Oklahoma State gets the ball back on their own 37. On first down Mississippi State brings five pass rushers and forces Chelf to hit his first look, wide receiver Tracy Moore, for seven yards. OSU scrambles back to the line to start the tempo attack and causes MSU to jump offsides, earning the Cowboys' first conversion. But another attempted screen is blown up when defensive end Denico Autry pressures Chelf. It's just a four-man rush. The Bulldogs' defenders simply outplay OSU's line.
Two plays later on third-and-nine, the game changes. MSU abandons pressure, dropping eight into coverage. Even with time Chelf makes a poor read, missing freshman wideout Marcell Ateman on a pass that MSU strong safety Jay Hughes undercuts.
GIFs from ESPN3.com stream. Made by Luke Zimmermann.
Chelf has been hurried and not entirely accurate to this point, but that incompletion is his first poor decision. It's the end for Chelf, but also for Hughes. The junior lands poorly after attempting the interception, with what looks like an ankle injury. He's now out for the game, and it's revealed Monday to be a torn right ACL.
Already breaking in fresh corners, the loss of a starting safety reduced MSU's secondary to an almost all-new unit.
Collins: "There were times I'd look out there and think ... wow. [Losing] Hughes hurt us a little bit because he’s the quarterback of the defense. Him being back there and getting everybody set and lined up took a little bit away from what we wanted to do with tempo."
MSU wants particular veteran starters on the field, specifically Hughes, senior safety Nickoe Whitley, and sophomore linebacker Benardrick McKinney. The trio is responsible for mirroring calls from the sideline and checking that certain position groups are lined up. Their attentiveness is crucial to keeping pace with OSU's hurry-up. To emphasize this, Collins has been showing his players videos of Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul commanding tempo, pace, and attitude from his teammates on the court.
Collins: "They're great players in their own right, but great players make other players better, and we have to have that."
The Cowboys punt, trailing time of possession 8:47 to 2:07 with MSU leading in first downs, 6-1. To this point Perkins has been rolling for the Bulldogs' clock-eater offense, and Oklahoma State can't tempo anything without the football. OSU hasn't had a chance to challenge State's green secondary because of Collins' focal point: bringing a variety of pressures to the quarterback without losing contain on screens and quick passes. Stewart, the home run threat MSU's staff has keyed on stopping, hasn't even seen the ball.
Oklahoma State drive No. 3: Seven plays, 20 yards, punt.
Enter Walsh, the running quarterback. Out of the Oklahoma State diamond formation, he gains six yards rushing left and six yards rushing right, the second of which is called back for a blocking penalty. Walsh throws a completed screen to his running back Smith, who'd gone in motion, but the play gains only four yards.
Then the game-changer. On third-and-four, Mississippi State blitzes five. It's the exact same trips formation of receivers as the last play, but Walsh reads the blitz and hands it to running back Desmond Roland, who goes 16 yards for the Cowboys' first non-penalty first down of the game.
The Cowboys' next three plays are a no-gain screen pass to Stewart and two more incomplete passes from Walsh. They'll punt again, but OSU has found a weakness. Mississippi State's mindfulness of the quick pass and dedication to pressure has made them vulnerable to the zone read and designed QB runs.
Mississippi State's offense begins to disappear. In the next three drives the Bulldogs will run 12 plays for 28 yards and three penalties. But Walsh is still primarily throwing the ball, and OSU's two quarterbacks are a combined 8-of-15 passing for 25 yards with 3:49 remaining in the half. By contrast, the Cowboys had 324 total yards passing against TCU last season, the best statistical defense they saw in 2012.
Collins: "At this point, about 25 minutes into the game, when our guys were holding one of these offenses that's led the nation in offense for the last three years, I thought our kids were handling it really well. They played the pass exceptionally well, they spiked their gaps and handled the tempo."
Oklahoma State drive No.6: Six plays, 69 yards, touchdown.
The Cowboys start on their own 31. The Bulldogs are down another starting defensive back when corner Jamerson Love is injured on punt coverage, but there's still no sign of a deep-ball passing attack. Walsh gives two reads to Roland, who stays inside and brings up a third-and-one.
With cowbells echoing inside of Reilant's closed roof, OSU goes back to the diamond and Walsh breaks the game open. All three of MSU's linebackers bite on the run-fake to Smith, while a six-man O-line pulls right. Roland and fullback Jeremy Seaton head left out of the diamond and into a clearing, with Walsh carrying the ball behind them. The sole receiver on the play, Ateman, draws MSU's backup corner Cedric Jiles downfield.
Now it's nothing but daylight and empty stadium seating in front of Walsh, who goes 46 yards down the left sideline. He scrambles back, lines up the offense and runs the same play to the same side, landing on the 3-yard line. MSU calls a timeout to calm down, but the exposure of perimeter rushing lanes is a fait accompli. Walsh will score on a keeper two plays later. OSU leads 7-3.
Yurcich: "You never know what's going to be a primary formation until you adjust to the defense you're playing. It was something we wanted to do to see how they would adjust; that's for sure."
Collins: "When they came out with the triple-option stuff it took us a while to get adjusted. You sit there all week and prepare to stop such a high-powered offense, and then all of a sudden a novelty shows up, and that’s how they get to you."
He describes the Cowboys' read option in the diamond formation as an inverted wishbone, and notes after the game that in addition to being one of Oklahoma State's lesser-used tactics, the offense changed personnel.
Collins: "What we saw on film was a two-fullback, one-tailback set they ran out of, and what they did against us was a two-tailback, one-fullback group. That added to the deception initially, and it hurt us."
It seems to infect. The Bulldogs are now hapless on offense, too. This doesn't just compound matters for the defense. It signals the beginning of the end. The Dogs are on pace to hold OSU to lows in points and passing yards, but can't win without ball control.
MSU can't run out the half. Russell is sacked on a fourth-and-15 that gives OSU the ball with 34 seconds and only 56 yards to the end zone. But the Cowboys can't exploit the weakness and run a no-minute offense on triple-option keepers. On third-and-seven, Walsh finds Stewart wide open against a MSU zone for 21 yards, the longest pass of the game.
Josh Stewart. Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports.
Collins: "We were in a kind of prevent, but we still should've had somebody right there on him. He just ran a little too deep into the coverage. But you're looking at 11 seconds left and a third-and-10, so you're in a little bit of a looser coverage."
The catch sets up a 49-yard field goal attempt that the Bulldogs block. MSU's Taveze Calhoun plucks the live ball and returns it 68 yards to the Cowboys' 10-yard line as time expires. It's the closest Mississippi State will get to the end zone from then on out.
Yurich: "We were moving the ball well in the two-minute drill before the half. But we were already in the elevator headed down to the field [on the field goal attempt]. We heard it on the radio: 'he's to the 30, to the 20.' And we're like 'Oh, man.' That was tough."
Oklahoma State drive No. 7: 11 plays, 75 yards, touchdown.
Stewart is showing life. Mississippi State rushes only four on a third-and-four, but the Cowboy line holds and Walsh hits the playmaker on a curl for 13 yards. Two plays later, MSU recognizes an OSU tendency from film study: when the Cowboys are in a two-back set at midfield, they're fond of calling jet sweeps or reverses, or passing out of those fakes. Smith takes a handoff left and gives to Stewart, who sweeps right into the hands of safety Dee Arrington for a two-yard loss. Even shorthanded, MSU is resilient against OSU base tendencies.
Collins blitzes five on the resulting third down, but Walsh throws right over the blitz side of his protection's pick-up, hitting Blake Jackson on an out route for the first. To this point, Oklahoma State's passing game can be explained simply as successful when calm, nonexistent when pressured.
Walsh keeps on a zone read out of the pistol formation on the next play, and MSU hits him late out of bounds. OSU sets up shop on the 19-yard line, and after a Walsh touchdown pass to Smith is overturned as out-of-bounds after review, the sweep works when Stewart goes in motion and finds the edge. A yard and a play later, Smith scores to give OSU a 14-3 lead. The Cowboys had 35 yards passing the entire first half, 30 on this drive alone.
Mississippi State can't get a first down and hands the ball back in just over two minutes. Since the opening drive, MSU is 0-of-8 on third downs.
Oklahoma State drive No. 8: 14 plays, 52 yards, turnover on downs.
With a minor passing game now active, Oklahoma State goes to full tempo. It's a frenetic jab-and-stick combo of run and pass that moves the ball from the Cowboy 20 to the Mississippi State 43 before the Dogs succumb and are penalized for a substitution infraction.
The next play shows MSU unraveling. Walsh escapes an untouched blitzer and freezes defensive back Jiles, who is afraid to leave pass defense, on the way to a first down.
But the Cowboys don't score. Just as ESPN analyst Rod Gilmore notes this looks like Mississippi State's breaking point, Autry pressures Walsh into an incompletion on second down, and Roland comes up one yard short on a third-down zone read. A holding penalty on Stewart creates a fourth-and-eight, where MSU is all over a completed swing pass to Smith. Linebacker Zach Jackson leads a desperate swarm.
"That's a momentum saving tackle," Gilmore raves from the booth. "This is a tackle that keeps you in the game."
Gilmore's right. OSU normally confuses defensive assignments with simple, short passes hidden in the "window dressing" Collins and his staff picked apart on tape. But MSU has played the OSU short pass (in all its many forms) well. Their tactic? Throw the same window dressing right back at the offense.
Collins: "We tried to keep the coverages different, and also change who was fitting those coverages. That way the quarterback doesn't have a clean look. We spent a lot of time in practice with formation recognition and tips for our guys on when those plays would show up."
It's a two-prong attack. Give a young QB the false sense that blocks are in place for a screen by making him account for the wrong defenders. And use heaps of film study to help your linebackers and defensive backs cheat in pursuit by recognizing plays developing a second quicker.
Yurcich: "I think [the screen passes] were there; I just think we didn't execute them. I think at the same time, hindsight's 20/20, so yeah, if they don't work I'll change the play call. If the call doesn't work, it's a bad play call for whatever reason. Screens are a way to offset a defensive lineman's pursuit upfield. We'll always have screens on offense."
On the next play Russell is knocked out of the game with a probable concussion while scrambling out of the pocket. MSU gains only 1 yard and punts. OSU will score only one touchdown in the third quarter, but the Cowboys hold the ball for 11:31 of 15 minutes, running 31 plays to MSU's five and outgaining the Bulldogs 200 yards to 10.
Oklahoma State drive No. 9: Nine plays, 82 yards, touchdown.
Walsh never throws a pass for more than six yards. The vaunted deep-ball attack is a total no-show. The Cowboys will close the game out here, with committee runs of 21, 20, and 10 yards before Smith sweeps left for a 20-yard touchdown.
Collins: "I can tell you exactly what happened on that [touchdown]. I was sitting there watching my sam linebacker; he’s a redshirt sophomore [Jackson]. He spikes the gap, he’s two yards in the backfield about to make the play, and he trips. And then the play bounces, and it bounces and so on … but he was a great kid, came running up to me after the play telling me, ‘Hey coach, that one’s all me, I had a tackle for a loss.’"
Jeremy Smith and Zach Jackson. Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports.
The game is completely out of reach with 14:33 remaining. Oklahoma State finishes with 286 net yards rushing and 146 passing, the longest of which was Stewart's 21-yard catch before halftime against a prevent zone. Walsh is the first Cowboys quarterback to rush for over 100 yards since Zac Robinson in 2007. The entire DNA of the Cowboy offense Mississippi State set out to game plan before the season has mutated over the course of four quarters.
What should constitute a "SEC defense" or a "Big 12 offense?" For coordinators, the reality is far more ambiguous. And while the focus here was on the match-up between the conference's respective strengths, credit must be given to new OSU defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer for a total shutdown of the Bulldogs. Often in MSU's 0-for-8 streak on third downs, the Dogs couldn't get one or two extra yards needed when rushing inside. That's the hallmark of a traditional SEC defense, but so too is the ability to use the running game to control a game's tempo.
Mullen: "One of the challenges is, when you’re facing new coordinators that are calling games out there, is that you don’t know how they’re going to call it. You can throw every tendency out the window because you have a new guy calling plays. That was a challenge for us, not having that kind of background on the guys that are calling plays."
After the game the defensive staff has a set of positives to work from, given MSU's ability to keep the OSU pass from controlling the game. Auburn looms in two weeks for the Bulldogs, as do a number of air raid offenses similar to the Cowboys.
Collins: "The kids are going to have a little bit of confidence knowing they can play against a high powered offense. They went toe-to-toe with them for most of the game, they had great skills players and a great scheme, and I think for the most parts our kids handled it well," he says.
Oklahoma State drive No. 10: Five plays, 18 yards, punt.
There's one more slight disagreement: whether or not Mississippi State could've ever stopped Walsh's runs and still kept contain on the passing game.
Collins: "It took us a little while to get adjusted to it, but when we did, we’d get tackles for loss."
With the game out of hand, Oklahoma State took the ball with 8:50 remaining. The Cowboys' previous drives of 75, 52, and 82 yards yielded 14 points, but the Cowboys would punt with 5:50 remaining after just five plays, two of which were tackles for loss on runs out of the diamond.
To MSU, this is evidence that they solved the problem, just not fast enough. To the outside observer, it's arguable that had MSU scored even one touchdown up to this point that there would still be a game worth playing.
Collins: "When we first saw the runs, we were two hats short on coverage from what we were in. You need three people on the perimeter: someone outside and someone inside to take on the different parts of the option."
The stop did rally MSU to some degree, and the Bulldog offense marched to the OSU 31-yard line before backup QB Dak Prescott would throw an interception. After the game, Yurcich tactfully bristled at the idea his offense had been answered at all.
Yurcich: "I don't know, I think at the last play of the game J.W. kept for about 15 yards, so ..."
Collins: "If we played them next week, I’d run with the plan we put it in at the end of the third, start of the fourth quarter to stop the diamond. We'd be ready for it."