September 22, 2017 11:19:36 AM
STARKVILLE -- Opposing coaches trying to find Mississippi State's formula for third-down offense aren't going to find one -- just how coach Dan Mullen designed it.
The season is young, but MSU (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) leads the SEC in third-down conversion rate, converting on 47.37 percent of attempts (18-38), better than any of the previous five MSU teams have finished their seasons. Georgia (3-0) has held its opponents to date to a conversion rate of barely 30 percent; the two meet at 6 p.m. Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
The two programs have not met since 2011, but the Georgia staff will have much more familiarity with Mullen's ways than that history would indicate. Georgia coach Kirby Smart was previously the defensive coordinator at Alabama. His final three teams held MSU to a third-down conversion percentage of 32.6 percent, but he can see what it is about Mullen that has made him effective otherwise.
"Dan's always done a good job mixing up the run and pass," Smart said on the SEC teleconference.
MSU has put on a clinic in run-pass balance on third downs through three games: of the 38 MSU has faced, 23 have been passes and 15 have been runs, and of the 18 that have been converted, the ratio is 10 runs to eight passes. MSU was perfect in that category against LSU: six conversions, three catches and three runs.
"Obviously the ultimate goal is to get a first down on third down to keep the drive alive and one of the things we try to do is mix run and pass up, because I do think the willingness to run the ball on third-and-medium situations puts some hesitation on all the different blitzes you usually see in that situation," Mullen said on the SEC teleconference. "You try to keep the balance to keep the defenses on edge and instead of seeing the exotic blitzes you see to keep them more balanced in their looks."
Understandably, MSU runs more in short yardage and passes more in long yardage, but Mullen has been successful in the aforementioned medium yardage. MSU has faced seven third downs with between four and six yards to go and has run twice, converting once. In situations with between four and nine yards to go, MSU still favors the pass -- eight passes to three runs -- but still runs enough to create cause for concern.
The balance has created big-play opportunities: of the 18 conversions, eight have gone for more than 10 yards and three have gone for more than 20. MSU has even scored on third down three times, once in each game.
Third-down balance for MSU means much more than simply run and pass.
In the run game, for instance, balance means divvying up the load between quarterback and running back. Running back Aeris Williams and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, for instance, have the same number of third-down rushing conversions: three. Fitzgerald even ran for a 30-yard touchdown on third down against Louisiana Tech.
Mullen sees that threat as a pivotal aspect of his third-down offense.
"It certainly helps, having the ability to run the quarterback at times because they have to account for him within the scheme," Mullen said. "We've been fortunate, we've had some athletic quarterbacks that even when a play breaks down can beat you scrambling. What we try to get you to do is defend all 11 players, defend both sides of the field and defend run and pass, not just pin your ears back and think it's sack time on third down."
MSU personnel balance holds true when it passes. MSU's 23 third-down pass attempts have been spread through eight intended targets with no one player targeted more than five times (Keith Mixon). Williams, a running back, has even been targeted twice and tight ends -- Farrod Green and Jordan Thomas -- have been targeted five times combined.
Nine different Bulldogs have moved the chains for MSU so far, but no one player accounts for more than three of MSU's 18 successful conversions. Williams have each run for three conversions; Mixon, Donald Gray and Green have all caught two passes for conversions while backup quarterback Keytaon Thompson has converted twice on runs. Wide receiver Deddrick Thomas has moved the chains twice, once on a reception and once on a run.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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