Mullen Offense 101: How the play calling works throughout a game

Throughout the offseason, I’ve been doing this Mullen Offense 101 series both to get myself up-to-date on what the new head coach did in his time in Starkville and help everyone understand what we’ll be seeing this fall. So far I’ve gone over basic philosophy, a bit about the run game, and how he uses personnel groupings.

Today’s installment will take a step back and look at how Dan Mullen calls an entire game.

As the object lesson, I’ll be going through each drive in Mississippi State’s 2017 game against Arkansas. I’ve charted out the game using the same system I employed in the personnel groupings post, and it really helps to illuminate the process Mullen uses during a game. It does seem to me to be a process of testing the defense rather than a set plan from the start.

Drive 1: 3 plays, 3 yards, punt

Arkansas came out in a 3-3-5 arrangement with a BUCK-style hybrid DE/OLB and a safety who frequently came up for run support. It’d use that defense essentially all game.

The first drive consists of three called passes, and second down kills the drive. Nick Fitzgerald can’t find anyone open on a slow-developing pass play, and he is strip-sacked. MSU recovers, but it can’t convert 3rd & 14.

Drive 2: 1 play, -5 yards, lost fumble TD

Disaster strike on the five-yard-line. Running back Nick Gibson fumbles in the process of being tackled for a loss, and Arkansas recovers it in the end zone. With three fumbles (including a muffed punt) midway through the first quarter, the Bulldogs are down 14-0.

Drive 3: 9 plays, 37 yards, missed field goal

Mullen goes with a couple of handoffs to his best tailback Aeris Williams to settle things down. Fitzgerald then hits an intermediate cross to convert a third down with the drive’s only pass.

Two plays later Mullen calls a second pass, but a blitzer gets to the quarterback before any of the three vertical routes come open. Fitzgerald scrambles for a first down, but pass protection seems to be a problem early. Next a called quarterback run that loses three yards puts the offense in a hole it can’t get out of, and Mullen goes conservative with a run on 3rd & 7 to try to put points on the board. The field goal barely misses wide left.

Notably, every play on this drive came from roughly the same formation: two receivers split to the wide side of the field, one receiver on the short side, a running back next to Fitzgerald, and a blocking tight end. All nine plays were different from each other despite the very similar formations, and twice a man went in motion before the snap.

This I interpret to be Mullen’s way of probing the defense: he’s seeing how it’ll react to various things while lining up almost the same way every play. It’s a major part of what makes Mullen’s play calling feel like a process to me.

Drive 4: 9 plays, 18 yards, punt

MSU has been in 11 personnel — one RB, one TE, 3 WRs — up until now, but the first two plays of this drive are two-TE sets with them both close up on the line for power rushing. Runs of nine and three yards on the first two plays move the sticks with the new grouping, but the Bulldogs revert to 11 personnel for the rest of the drive. Unlike the last series, though, the formations are varied this time.

Mullen goes with a pair of passes midway through, and both go awry. The first has a man open on the shallower of the two crosses in a Follow concept, but Fitzgerald can’t get the pass out on time and scrambles instead. He then overthrows a deep post on the second one. A holding flag that sets up a 2nd & 16 and a sack on 3rd & 7 kill the drive.

Drive 5: 8 plays, 50 yards, touchdown

MSU goes with two-TE sets exclusively this drive, but it’s different than the prior plays. Those were power runs with a pair of blocking tight ends, but one of the tight ends this time is Jordan Thomas. Thomas does a little blocking but primarily is used as a receiver.

Mullen goes with five passes in the first seven plays. The second toss nets a first down, but the first is a throwaway after a fumbled snap and the third is an overthrow on a deep route. The fourth is another deep overthrow — Fitzgerald was bad about that in this game — but the fifth is a nice 17-yard strike to enter the red zone. Fitzgerald keeps it on a read option and houses it from 18 yards out on the ensuing play.

Despite the throwing struggles so far, Mullen went pass-heavy after being run-heavy the prior two drives. It paid off, but the struggles didn’t disappear with fewer than half the throws completed.

Drive 6: 3 plays, 17 yards, touchdown

The two-TE sets with Thomas continued, but the passing did not. All three plays were runs, with a quarterback Power, a reverse to a wideout, and Williams scoring from eight yards out on a long trap play. We’re tied up at 14 heading into the half.

Drive 7: 11 plays, 66 yards, turnover on downs

Mullen continues with Thomas’s two-TE sets except for a short stretch late in the drive where Thomas gets a breather. Those have been working, so Mullen sticks with them.

This series is notable for having run-pass options (RPOs) appear for what I believe is the first time all game. Fitzgerald gets a 16-yard scramble on the first, while the second converts a short third down with a pass. The drive dies with a nearly-intercepted incompletion under pressure followed by Fitzgerald overthrowing another deep route.

Drive 8: 5 plays, 11 yards, punt

All five plays in this series are option runs.

The drive begins with a couple of two-running back sets, and from here, the two-tight end sets largely disappear. The Bulldogs get five yards each on a pair of read options from those two-RB looks.

MSU options a defensive tackle on the next play, and then it goes speed option from the Wildcat with a freshman quarterback keeping it. A kind of speed option counter, faking one way before going the other, finishes things off. The final three plays net one total yard; Arkansas clearly had caught on.

Drive 9: 3 plays, 7 yards, punt

A hold on first down creates what ends up an insurmountable 1st & 20. Two bad Fitzgerald throws precede a screen that almost picks up the first down. Mullen punts on 4th & 3 from the Arkansas 46.

Drive 10: 4 plays, 25 yards, punt

After three straight throws dictated by the situation on the last drive, Mullen goes with four more called passes. Fitzgerald scrambles for 25 yards on the first, but he misses receiver Jamal Couch on each of the next three plays. The third is yet another deep overthrow.

Drive 11: 6 plays, 55 yards, touchdown

Despite being down 21-14 with seven minutes to go, Mullen temporarily shelves the passes that haven’t been working well and leans on the run. Two read options, a quarterback Power, and two more read options steadily move the ball. With the defense thinking run, Fitzgerald finally hits a guy on a deeper route for a 37-yard score.

Drive 12: 9 plays, 44 yards, touchdown

With the game tied at three minutes to go and good field position, Mullen mostly keeps it on the ground. Williams and Fitzgerald alternate carries on the first four plays, and then Fitzgerald finds Williams on the checkdown of a four verticals play. Williams then gets one more carry.

Inside the red zone with under a minute to go, Mullen does what his reputation would predict: he calls two straight designed quarterback runs up the middle. On third down, the defense is clearly thinking run, and Fitzgerald does immediately leave the pocket. It’s a rollout and not a run, though, and he hits a guy diving in the front corner of the end zone for the winning score.

Overall

This game wasn’t a work of art. Arkansas had a bad defense, but Mississippi State’s longest drive was only 55 yards. It was a bad sandwich game, coming a week after their heartbreaking loss to Alabama and a week before the Egg Bowl. It was cold too, with everyone on the sidelines bundled up, and Fitzgerald kept overthrowing receivers.

I think there’s more to learn from a game like this one, though, than one where the offense clicked and could do anything it wanted.

Mullen frequently switched between run and pass as the core of drives; only one series had the count of run and pass plays be almost equal. Even in the second half he was still experimenting, with an all-option-run drive followed by a couple of all-pass drives. He would use roughly the same formation for most or all of one drive and then change the formation on every play in the next series.

He started with his customary 11 personnel group, but he switched to 12 (two-TEs) and stuck with that when it worked. A couple times he did something very different with a drive’s first two plays before going back to the usual stuff after. With the game on the line, he went with his bread-and-butter run game with the two best rushing options, Fitzgerald and Williams.

That’s Mullen’s offense. It’s not predictable from start to finish, but it hits certain things and rides them for stretches. Sometimes those stretches are grooves and sometimes they’re ruts, but he doesn’t stay in the ruts for long when they come. He’s like an improvisational musician, trying themes out for a musical phrase, repeating it once or twice if it works, and then picking up a different theme after.

This is just one game, but it is representative. Against LSU last year, he went with only trips sets from 11 personnel in the first drive before changing the formation every single play with 12 personnel the second. The most notable difference is that he blended run and pass more evenly within drives in that one, probably because the offense was running on all cylinders in a 37-7 win.

When the Gators head out on offense this fall, try to see the patterns in the drives. Is this a run series or a pass series? Are they lining up mostly the same way every time or varying it from play-to-play? Picking up on the contours of what Mullen is doing will help you understand why he’s calling the plays he’s calling and, hopefully, deepen your experience of the game.