Dan Mullen’s strengths and weaknesses as a coach

As you’d expect, Dan Mullen developed a reputation for a variety of things in his nine years in Starkville.

He was known as a quarterback developer heading into the job, and that remains true with the success of Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald. He delivered on his promise as a top offensive mind. Last year, Fitzgerald set a couple of single-season quarterback rushing records for the SEC, while Fred Ross set the all-time school record for receptions. His Bulldogs scored more than 30 points per game in each of the last four seasons despite playing amongst great defenses in the SEC West.

If you believe what Mississippi State fans will tell you, Mullen was great at formulating a game plan but struggled with in-game coaching decisions. There are bits of evidence to that effect, such as this stat from November 2014 when ESPN found that Mullen was 37-1 when leading at the half and 3-24 when trailing at the half. Counting forward from that, I came up with a career record of 57-5 when leading and 7-37 when behind at the break.

There is no better example of that purported dichotomy of good planning and bad or missing adjustments than the Bulldogs’ near-miss against Alabama earlier this year.

Mullen had an excellent game plan, even though Alabama had a good idea of what was coming. The Bulldogs were down three of their best receivers in the game, so an MSU team that already liked to run was probably going to keep it on the ground.

The first play of the game was a perfect exploitation of the expectations. Mullen used to have Tim Tebow do one-man play fakes, and he did the same thing but in a different form with Nick Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald looks like he’s going to do a designed quarterback run to the right, but he pulls up and tosses it long. He had two receivers to shop from, but he overthrows it. Some of that is Fitzgerald not being a great downfield passer, and some of it I think is Alabama’s phenomenal DT Da’Ron Payne bearing down on him and forcing him to throw it earlier than he wanted to.

Beyond that, though, Mississippi State found a groove with some staples of spread offense power rushing attacks. The plays weren’t designed to attack the A-gaps where Payne and Raekwon Davis were patrolling but rather go a little wider and hit at spots where defensive ends or linebackers would be. Alabama was down several of its top linebackers in the game, so it made sense to do that instead of run into the strength of the Bama line.

The way Mullen did it was by having Fitzgerald or Aeris Williams following behind pulling guards and tight ends. The plays would send the ball carriers between a tackle and tight end, or even wider in one case where Fitzgerald bounced it outside. Here is a quick compilation of State doing this.

None of these are big breakaway plays, but they kept the ball moving and drives going.

Mullen’s offense is built in such a way that when a certain kind of play is working, he can use that success to set up something else. Here is an example where pulling the right guard sells play action well enough to free up the tight end on a seam route.

If you can’t see the clip, the play is 3rd & 2. The clip begins with Greg McElroy talking about how Mississippi State has leaned on the offensive line all game, and he predicts that the play will be a run behind the left side of the line. The pulling right guard and a play action fake sells the run to the left just enough for safety Ronnie Harrison to bite on it. The tight end gets behind Harrison, who is too late to defend the pass, and Fitzgerald hits him with a laser strike for a big gain.

The focus on the run didn’t just keep the ball moving, it also kept the clock moving. That too was another key part of the strategy, as was not snapping the ball too quickly. MSU played keep away, essentially, and ended up winning time of possession 38:56 to 21:04. Keeping the Alabama offense off of the field prevented the Tide from having all that many scoring opportunities.

In summary, the game plan was just right. A decent chunk of MSU’s downfall in the game was some of Mullen’s in-game coaching decisions.

He was overly conservative with a couple of end-of-drive choices. On State’s first possession, they got to 4th & 2 at the Bama 36. Instead of going for it, he opted to try to draw the defense offsides. Bama didn’t bite, so MSU took an intentional delay of game penalty and punted.

Later, up only 21-17, Mullen’s kicker made a field goal on 4th & 7 from the Alabama eight-yard-line early in the fourth quarter. On that play though, the Tide committed a five-yard running into the kicker penalty. Rather than accept the flag and get 4th & 2 from the three, he declined it and took the points.

Alabama tied the game up on the ensuing drive. Mullen went conservative in his play calling from there on out, and it produced a five play, 18 yard punt drive and a three play, -1 yard punt drive.

Finally, Mullen didn’t overrule the most well-known tendency of his defensive coordinator Todd Grantham at the end of the game. Grantham has a reputation for blitzing on big third downs, and because everyone knows that tendency, those blitzes often don’t work. Offenses will keep an extra blocker in to deal with the pressure, and then they’ll run blitz-buster plays like quick throws to spots where extra rushers came from. Georgia fans coined the term “third and Grantham” no later than October of his first season in Athens to describe this pattern.

With 38 seconds to go in the game, Alabama had the ball on its own 43 in a 3rd & 15 situation. True to form, Mississippi State showed blitz before the snap and sent eight guys after the passer. Jalen Hurts calmly hit Calvin Ridley on a quick slant that went for 31 yards. Third and Grantham.

On the following play, MSU went a little less aggressive and only sent six on a blitz. It didn’t matter. Hurts hit DeVonta Smith on a quick slant on the other side of the field that went for 26 yards and a touchdown.

Everyone in the stadium and watching on TV knew Grantham was going to blitz. Mullen didn’t step in to advise his DC to do literally anything else besides what was expected, and Alabama did the most basic thing in the playbook for dealing with a blitz. Two plays, 57 yards, game-winning touchdown in 13 seconds on the game clock.

The good news is that Dan Mullen will have a better and more talented roster than anything he had at Mississippi State before too long. If he has a winning game plan to begin with, his Gators will often jump out to big leads and not have to worry about adjustments. One thing to watch, however, is whether the additional talent to work with will help him overcome situations where the game plan isn’t perfect from the start.