What went wrong for Mississippi State football’s offense against Alabama?
While Mississippi State managed to put more points on the board than we’re accustomed to seeing against Alabama, this was still mostly a bad performance from the offense. State managed just 261 total yards. It may be Alabama, but that amount of yardage is never acceptable in the modern era of the sport.
Specifically, MSU could not get their passing game going at all. One week after Will Rogers set a career high for passing yards, he regressed back to an awful performance. Rogers went 15-27 for 107 yards. That’s than four yards per attempt. He threw three interceptions and was sacked four times. Obviously the sacks mostly go back to the offensive line, and one of the picks wasn’t his fault either. But this was yet another rough outing for Will Rogers this season.
We’ll start with the OL though, because they were, predictably, terrible in pass protection. It’s been an issue all season, and with the talent Alabama has up front on defense, we knew things could get ugly in that aspect of the game.
Here’s the first sack of the game. This comes on 3rd & 5 of State’s second possession. State goes with Mesh Rail. Mesh Rail is far and away the most popular way of running the Mesh concept in football today. The traditional versions of Mesh, such as the ones State ran under Mike Leach in the Air Raid, are a bit notorious for being “expensive” plays. Meaning, it can take a long time for an offense to master them, so if you’re going to run them, you need to commit to them being a big part of your offense. And that was obviously the case in the Air Raid.
But other systems don’t want so much put into one concept. Mesh Rail’s popularity comes down to the fact that it takes the core idea of the concept – create traffic over the middle of the field to free up a receiver – but makes some of the finer details less necessary while also simplifying the read for the QB. The defining features of Mesh Rail are the “rail” route from the RB (a quick-hitting wheel route) and an “Over The Ball” route from a receiver just above the mesh routes in the middle of the field. It’s a very popular third down and redzone play, as it’s a great man coverage-beater, and defenses often play man in those situations.
Sure enough, Alabama plays man. They’re in man free. Bama (somewhat) disguises where the pressure is going to come from on the play. They have SLB Dallas Turner, their best pass rusher, looking like he’s going to bring pressure off the edge as usual. But Turner is actually going to play coverage. He’s responsible for Woody Marks out of the backfield. Instead of sending Turner to rush the QB, both inside LBs are going to attack the B-gap between the LT and LG while the rest of the front slants away from that gap.
Bama is looking to get one or both of those LBs through the B-gap unblocked, which is exactly what happens. The reason I said they only “somewhat” disguise this is because Dallas Turner gives a pretty clear tell that he’s not rushing here. Rather than having his head angled in to watch for the snap, he’s staring right at Marks. He wants to be completely locked in on the RB to avoid getting beat for an easy completion.
LT Percy Lewis isn’t watching for that, though, and at the snap, he goes to block Turner, who runs with Marks on the rail route. This lets inside LB Trezman Marshall easily run by. Marks is the first read on the play, and Turner has him covered. The second read is Jordan Mosley coming across the field on the mesh, and he’s open enough that Rogers could hit him for the conversion. The problem is that Marshall is already tackling Rogers by the time Mosley enters the progression.
State’s third drive also goes disastrously with Rogers throwing a pick-six on third down. But I don’t put this play on Rogers. For one, the ball gets tipped by the defender bearing down on him, causing it to sail over his intended target and into the arms of LB Chris Braswell. I don’t know that there’s an arm angle he could’ve thrown from here to avoid that.
I more so have my questions about everything else with this play. I think this is meant to be a screen to RB Jeffery Pittman with TE Ryland Goede as the lead blocker. But I emphasize “think” because this play turns into such a cluster that it’s not entirely clear how many players are involved in the screw-up.
Assuming it was indeed a screen, was Goede supposed to be the only blocker or were any lineman supposed to leak out? Also if it’s a screen, why is Tulu Griffin on a route to the screen side of the field as opposed to clearing out the defense? If that’s intentional, I’ve got some questions.
This plays fails even if the ball isn’t tipped for the pick. Braswell easily gets off Goede’s block once the ball is in the air. He’d have tackled Pittman for a loss if it was completed. And Dallas Turner was also bearing down on Pittman from the other side because no one on the OL stops him. This is just bad all around.
I cannot absolve Will Rogers of blame on his second interception, though (or his third for that matter, though that one doesn’t bother me given the game situation it occurred in). MSU gets the ball down 24-10 with just over a minute to go in the first half. They have no timeouts, but that’s plenty of time to try and get some points before halftime.
They run the Hank concept. Hank features a curl-flat combo to each side of the field with an over-the-ball sit route in the middle. It’s a traditional Cover 3 beater, as the five underneath routes across the field should mean there’s an open man against Cover 3’s four underneath zones. It’s not particularly good against other coverages, though, and while it’s tough to tell exactly what Alabama’s in, it look to be some quarters variation.
The first read in Hank is the sit route, which is being run by TE Antonio Harmon. Harmon has WLB Jihaad Campbell all over him. And yet that’s where Rogers goes with the ball. Why? I have to think it’s because Rogers sees Campbell open his hips up outside as if to run with Tulu Griffin on the flat route. He expects Campbell to widen, leaving a window over the middle to hit Harmon. But Campbell instead stays over the middle. Rogers has already committed to his first read at this point and throws it right to Campbell.
Had he realized Campbell was staying put, he potentially has Zavion Thomas open on the curl route to his right (the second read in this instance). I say potentially because the camera angle makes it unclear if the corner is in position to break on the ball if it’s thrown there, but it looks like there’s enough space for the throw. Regardless, Rogers throws a bad interception that allows Alabama to go up 21 points at the half.