This Auburn football season is like a video game. Each week, the bosses get tougher and the princess is always in another castle. This week, Auburn faces a new challenge on defense in Miss State's power/misdirection based offense. Last time we faced an offense like that was . . . A-Day.
The offenses we've faced so far were power and zone based offenses. You could generally follow the flow of the play to the hole the back would go to. The counters were slow developing and looked like counters. With Miss State, you often won't know where the ball is going until the carrier is at the point of attack. This sort of misdirection slows down defensive reaction time and allows teams of slightly above average offensive ability to look invincible.
Power misdirection offenses are not new. They find their origin in the old single wing and Notre Dame Box offenses that were so popular in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. These offenses morphed into wing-t offenses in the 50s and 60s and began disappearing from the college ranks in the 70s with the advent of the veer and wishbone option attacks. They disappeared for nearly forty years until coaches like Urban Meyer and Gus Malzahn started incorporating the concepts into modern spread formations. The result is a "spread to run" philosophy that is different from the wide open "air raid" offenses or the spread veer that schools like West Virginia ran.
The philosophy behind offenses like Auburn's and Mississippi State is to design families of related plays that threaten different parts of the field but look identical for a few steps. If the defense can't narrow down what play is being run, their reaction time is slowed. Meanwhile, the offensive linemen and fullback (who know exactly where they are going) run aggressive downhill blocking schemes that sideswipe the confused defenders. Let's look at just one of these play families, the jet sweep series.
Jet Sweep Series
Miss State, like Auburn, runs a lot of plays with jet sweep motion. Against Texas A&M, Miss State showed four different plays off of their Jet Sweep series. Below I'll show their basic formation with the potential points of attack labeled.
Miss State gets the jet sweep movement going but as you can see above, the play may go outside in the direction of the sweep action, outside opposite the sweep action, inside, or there could be a throwback pass. These aren't all the variations on what Miss State can do out of this look but I think it will demonstrate well enough for you how challenging it is for a defender to read the play and correctly react while being blindsided by large, angry blockers.
Play 1, The Jet Sweep
The first and most obvious thing Miss State can do out of this look is run a jet sweep. Let's diagram it below:
This play has become more and more popular recently. The entire point is to get a fast player the ball with him already at full speed at the time the ball is snapped. It relies on speed rather than power. The receivers stalk block whoever is across from them. Miss State blocks the down linemen but the linebackers are allowed to run free. The idea is that the running back can get to a running lane or the corner before the linebackers and safeties and get some positive yardage. Auburn people are very familiar with this play. Here it is live.
Play 2, The Isolation
I hear you at home. "Tuco, how hard is it really to stop that play? We have fast linebackers and our safeties have been providing great run support."
It wouldn't be hard at all, except that your linebackers and safeties have to give so much respect to the jet sweep action to beat the runner to the corner that it opens the defense up for various counters. Let's start with the first counter, the isolation.
This play looks almost exactly like the jet sweep for a step or two. The running back is coming in motion. The backside guard pulls. The linemen block the linemen in front of them. Then the backside guard pulls into the hole off guard and leads on the linebacker who has gap responsibility. The hope is that the linebackers will run themselves out of the play and the running back will get to the secondary unmolested.
Wrap your minds around this. In the year 2014, a dive is now misdirection. We are living in the future:
Texas A&M wasn't fooled but maybe it will slow down the linebacker pursuit on the speed sweep later in the game.
Play 3, The Counter Option
Now let's get into the fun variations on the jet sweep. Here is a counter option.
OK, so the jet sweep action is coming. The linemen run a zone blocking scheme in the direction of the motion. Texas A&M bites hard. All three linebackers move toward the direction of the sweep action. The secondary (likely in a Sky Cover 3 Zone) rotates the safety on the side of the motion up toward the line of scrimmage as soon as it is snapped to challenge the sweep motion. So far, so good.
But it isn't a sweep. The running back wraps around Prescott during the sweep fake and gets in good pitch relationship for a counter option. Texas A&M did very well to keep Miss State to six yards here:
Play 4, The Throwback
OK, so we see that with jet sweep motion, Miss State may attack the defense's flanks either toward or away from the motion or may run a dive. But wait, there's more!
The play starts off looking like a jet sweep. Dak Prescott lazily drifts away from the action after handing the ball off then takes off down the sideline. The running back runs just far enough to sell the sweep then throws back to Prescott. The biggest difference (and one that frankly, Texas A&M should be embarrassed that they didn't pick up on) is that the linemen are clearly in slide pass protection mode rather than run blocking.
(As an aside, does everyone know the difference between run blocking and pass blocking? The difference is getting blurred thanks to Coach Malzahn and others experimenting with aggressive pass blocking but as a general rule, if you see the offensive linemen charging forward to engage the defenders and trying actively to drive them back, they are run blocking. If you see the linemen stand up and drift backwards and allow the defensive linemen to come to them, they are pass blocking. We can talk about blocking schemes in more detail if there's sufficient interest but for the purposes of this article, just know that Miss State is in slide pass protection drifting right and backwards and Aggie's safety and linebackers should have recognized that.)
This play screams pass from the minute the ball is snapped. But if you get hit enough with the threat of the speed sweep, you react like Texas A&M did. All the linebackers chase the jet sweep motion. The safety chases the jet sweep all the way to the line of scrimmage. I think about half way there he realized how foolish he was going to look on film getting sucked in like that and just kept going to get as far away from the fire as possible. Texas A&M was lucky to keep Dak Prescott out of the endzone. Fortunately, for them, State's running back doesn't have a strong enough arm to get the ball to Prescott quickly.
These four looks aren't Miss State's entire playbook out of the jet sweep look. They are only the four variations they showed against Texas A&M in the first half of a game that got out of hand. There likely are many more variations on these plays that Miss State can call. How would I know? Just a hunch:
I was going to write about some other series but I think you should get the point by now: Mississippi State, like Auburn, maximizes its talent and looks better than they likely are because they run to the point of attack full speed while the defense is still trying to figure out what's going on.
Mississippi State's offense is made up of talented and hard working players but doesn't have a single superstar. I don't mean this as an insult to Miss State but no player on their offense is the best we will face at their respective position all year. All of their players, however, are legitimate, better-than-league-average SEC starters. The only player who may be the best we'll see all year is Dakota Prescott but that's because the SEC lost so many top flight quarterbacks last year that he, Nick Marshall, and Bo Wallace were the best returning starters almost by default.
Don't get me wrong, Dak is a very good football player. He runs as well as Jeremy Johnson but unlike Johnson he loves to run. He lacks some of the power of a Cam Newton, quickness and speed of a Nick Marshall, or redneck meanness of Kansas State's Jake Waters, but he is a very capable and willing running quarterback. He also has an incredibly accurate arm. Like quarterbacks in the Malzahn system, Dak gets to face simplified coverage. He has the ability to make them pay. He doesn't seem to have next-level arm strength but he's accurate enough and smart enough to find open receivers and make defenses pay. Most importantly, Dak is smart and experienced and knows how to run Mullen's offense.
Their offensive line unit is the best line we've faced since Arkansas. They are happiest running aggressive power blocking schemes but zone block competently from time to time when asked. Their receivers aren't overly dangerous but they don't drop the ball either and often, that's really all you need. Their running backs are strong and fast and hit the hole well. Likely the best unit of backs we've seen since Arkansas.
How to Gauge the Tiger's Chance of Success
Miss State is a grind it out sort of offense. They are perfectly happy to string together 8-10 play drives and work the ball down the field. I don't see them breaking a lot of big plays against Auburn. In games like this, field position matters. The longer the field in front of the offense is, the more likely something will go wrong. A turnover, a dropped pass, something to stall the drive. Think about Auburn's team in 2006 for comparison. If Auburn's defense has to start a lot of drives 1st and 10 inside their own territory, we could be in trouble.
So how do I think this game will go?
I think Mississippi State comes close but comes up short. Despite their lack of elite talent on offense, their scheme, experience, and talent level makes them the most dangerous offense we've faced to this point of the season. With the exception of Texas A&M they may be the most dangerous offense we see all season. Auburn's defense hasn't faced an offense with this sort of scheme yet but should get ready for it quickly due to their experience facing Malzahn's offense in the offseason. Miss State is too good to dominate like we did LSU but I see Auburn winning 28-17.