You can see the different stages of program-building all across the college football landscape. In Year 4 of Brady Hoke rebranding Wolverine football around classical ideals, Michigan has only managed to infuriate its fanbase and reach historic lows as a program. In Year 4 with Will Muschamp, Florida has fizzled in the face of a brutal schedule and mediocre quarterback play while players who transferred from the program are excelling elsewhere.
Meanwhile, under the softer lights that shine on Mississippi State football, Dan Mullen is in Year 6 of a program build that is blooming at the perfect time. The highlight came two weeks ago, when the currently 4-0, No. 12 Bulldogs did the unthinkable and went into Death Valley and blew out Les Miles' Tigers (until a fourth-quarter LSU rally that fell short, at least).
Mullen grew up as a QB coach and eventually coordinator with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida before taking over at Mississippi State in 2009. Since that time, MSU's been a middling team in the SEC West, struggling to get a footing with an annual schedule that includes the likes of Alabama and LSU.
Now in 2014, Mullen's Urban-inspired offense has come to fruition with a strong and complementary roster, led by true dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott (No. 7 nationally in passer rating after four games, at 178.41; No. 3 among non-triple option quarterbacks in rushing yards per game, with 94.5) but surrounded by players who fit at every position. How is it all coming together?
Theory of offense
While there are some passing concepts in the Bulldog playbook, particularly some five-wide spread plays, the heart of the offense is the running game. But Mullen doesn't just build a running game independent of the rest of the playbook. The whole system is designed to offer counterpunches to anything the defense does in adjustment to the running game.
In every formation and with every play call, the Bulldogs have complementary plays designed to punish the defense for overplaying base runs. The result is that the sum is greater than the parts.
Much like with Art Briles' offense in Waco, each player and scheme is a piece of a greater puzzle. Offensive linemen, wide receivers, quarterbacks ... they all need only to possess certain skills, and then each units' talents will bring out the best in each other.
For the receivers, the outside guys are primarily either blocking or running vertical routes down the field. The line needs to be mobile to execute Mullen's zone blocking schemes, but needn't be great at pass protection. Mullen's offense throws the ball primarily with either play-action or from spread sets in which the QB can move around.
Inside, they use an H receiver, who's the "Percy Harvin-type" or pitch man. He's essentially a running back who sees his action on the perimeter, while the RB is an inside runner. The other inside receiver is a B-back player who is moved around in the backfield or flexed out to offer an super-mobile blocking surface. The quarterback needs to be fast, smart, and tough enough to understand and operate the whole offense. Players like Prescott or Tim Tebow, who are above all tough and versatile, are more likely to excel than players with a few elite skills or drop-back acumen.
Building blocks and constraints
The Bulldogs are orthodox, in that their base running game is built around zone and power schemes. Within those schemes, however, they don't put a lot of emphasis on double teams. And they have effective constraints, or plays that punish the defense's reactions, attached to each scheme.
Here's their basic zone running game, featuring star running back Josh Robinson, who's on pace for about 1,700 regular-season yards from scrimmage:
Robinson excels in the Bulldog running game because his short legs have high turnover and he's capable of changing directions and darting through creases as they develop.
The line is focused on controlling penetration and opening up creases, rather than trying to move anyone off the ball. Quick steps by the interior OL, a drop step by the left tackle to lure the playside end upfield, and the right guard seals the tackle outside while the right tackle scoops under him and looks for work.
Robinson ran for 197 yards on 16 carries against LSU. Most of them came just running inside zone.
Inside zone contraints
The obvious constraints in the play above are the QB reads. Prescott eyes the coverage first, to see if LSU is respecting the bubble screen, then he reads the DE, as on a typical zone read play. Since the end stays home to take away the QB run, it's a handoff.
LSU has run out of players in its trips coverage to handle this run, especially with the right tackle folding around the guard. The middle linebacker is overly occupied with the threat of the bubble screen, and the Tigers don't have anyone to fill the backside lane. They're getting extra run support from the free safety, but he's looking to force the ball in from the edge. Robinson has no intention of taking the edge.
At times, MSU will run the zone read with a lead arc block for the QB by their H-back or that same blocker running between the tackles as a lead blocker for the running back. They can change up the angles to present disguise, but for most of the players, it's consistent.
The Bulldogs have a variety of ways to run power, including running it for the RB to hit the hole or using the RB as an extra lead blocker for the QB. But Mullen's favorite way to run power is with the power-read play that Cam Newton made famous at Auburn:
The Bulldogs run at the nose tackle and once again avoid the task of driving anyone off the ball with a double team. Instead, the linemen are blocking at angles and sealing players away from the ball or looking for second-level targets.
LSU's end tries to hit the pulling guard in the backfield and spill the ball outside, where the speedy playside linebacker is flowing hard to chase down the running back. However, Prescott sees his feeble attempt and pulls the ball. The pulling guard hilariously chucks the threat aside before clearing out that linebacker.
The key to being able to run this play is having a QB who can make reads and follow blocks on inside runs and who's tough enough to survive the pounding that comes from running between the tackles as a regular part of the offense. At 230 pounds and with 12 or more carries in 10 career games, Prescott is up to the challenge.
Power is Mullen's favorite play to use for play-action purposes, and the play-action game is what really tore apart the Tigers and makes this offense special. The value of using power for play-action plays is adherence to the old axiom If you really want play action, you better pull a guard.
When defenders see a guard pulling, it triggers a response that a simple fake hand-off can't match. And there's an added benefit to running play action off a version of power that involves the QB as a runner. If defensive backs are watching him for keys on when to fill in run support, he can freeze them by stepping forward and simulating a run before dropping back and launching a bomb:
There's no help inside for the two DBs covering the stacked receivers. The De'Runnya Wilson post route is left wide open with an easy window for Prescott to exploit.
Much of the Bulldog passing game is simply screen passes and bombs off the run game, much like the Meyer Ohio State attack that Braxton Miller led last season.
The Bulldogs will run outside zone, but they'll run it a few different ways. One interesting wrinkle they have is to use the quarterback as the runner, a la Denard Robinson at Michigan.
It becomes difficult for the defense to get numbers to the point of attack when the 215-pound running back becomes a lead blocker and the quarterback becomes the runner. On this play, the center released from his block on a defensive tackle, and the running back picked the tackle up while the center went even further downfield to take out a linebacker.
Outside zone constraints
The offense can still throw a bubble screen here, with Prescott neglecting to follow his lead blocker and instead turning and firing a pass to the other end of the field. The resulting horizontal stretch on the defense can be tough to manage. Above all, these run game tactics feast on teams that have either slow or slow-responding linebackers.
They'll also use outside zone blocking to run speed-option, with some throwback screens off that action as well.
Five-wide passing game
Finally there's the empty set. If you have a mobile quarterback, as a Mullen team inevitably will, you can run more vertical passing concepts from this set and trust your QB to be able to buy time to throw the ball with his legs.
This is probably the weakest part of this Bulldog offense, but the add-ons are very effective.
The easiest constraint on this play is the ultimate spread-'em-out-and-run-it-up-the-gut play, the QB draw. The Bulldogs will use that play, or simply run zone:
LSU's safeties and linebackers are so worried here about the passing plays that they are totally unprepared to fill gaps between the tackles and stop the run, even on short yardage against dual-threat Prescott.
No doubt, the Tigers were exposed as having a green defensive backfield against MSU. But this is the damage that can be done by making a defense think about so many possibilities on every play, even after the snap.
Meanwhile, because so much of the offense has built-in constraints, the main concepts for the Bulldogs are simple and sustainable. They call whichever is necessary to punish the defense. Naturally, they can run all of these looks from the same base personnel, which allows them to go up-tempo as they desire.
All of this and MSU's team success ensures bigger things are in store for Mullen, this year and beyond. Will it be with the Bulldogs?