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What's Ailing Mississippi State?

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Dan Mullen engineered quite the turnaround in Starkville, going 5-7 his first year and then jumping to 9-4 in his second. In this his third year, the momentum seems to be stalling out.

The Bulldogs are a disappointing 2-3 on the season, with the wins coming over hapless Memphis and in overtime against Louisiana Tech. The close loss to Auburn was particularly a blow, as it would have been a chance to prove that the team is moving up in the SEC West hierarchy.

The most obvious problem on the team so far has been the plague of injuries that have hit the offensive line. MSU has seen guys come and go, and it already was a thin unit to begin with. What kind of effect has that had on the offense? The following table of figures should tell the tale.

Season Yds/Rush Yds/Pass Yds/Pass Adj. Sacks/G TFLs All/G Rush Pct.
2009 5.35 6.51 5.60 1.67 6.42 65.16%
2010 4.91 8.42 7.36 1.77 5.92 65.71%
2011 5.00 6.55 5.60 2.40 8.00 55.07%


The first column shows yards per carry with sacks taken out (as the official NCAA numbers count sacks as runs). So far the rushing game hasn't been affected too badly. The Bulldogs are slightly ahead of where they were last season, and that's with 40% of their games having come against the good rushing defenses of LSU and Georgia.

The second column is where things begin to go south. Their yards per pass attempt has gone back to where it was in Mullen's first year when the freshman Chris Relf platooned with Tyson Lee. Again LSU and Georgia are very good defenses and are noticeable presences in the figures, so keep that in mind. Even so, the other three pass defenses they've faced are iffy at best. The effectiveness has come down.

The yards per pass adjusted covers the net yardage on passing plays. It is composed of passing yards minus sack yardage divided by pass attempts plus sacks. This year's number matches 2009's number evenly, which is not a good sign given that the offense was supposed to progress this year. Furthermore, Mississippi State is only getting 0.6 yard more on average when it calls a passing play than when it calls a running play. The higher risk of passing plays is not being outweighed by a large return in terms of yards gained.

Sacks are up, which is exactly what you would expect to see when the offensive line has been a MASH unit. If sacks are up, hurries and pressures are likely to be up too. Unfortunately, the NCAA doesn't keep track of those stats (probably because the terms are kind of mushy). Anyway, you can see in the next column that the rate of tackles for loss allowed per game is up as well. The line is struggling.

The final column is one I find pretty fascinating. It is a rough approximation of play calling mix, with sacks counted as pass plays instead of rushes. It's not perfect, as it doesn't account for when Relf pulls it down and runs on busted pass plays, but it's close enough.

The Bulldogs are passing the ball much more than they did in the previous two years. It's partially a function of trailing a lot in three of their five games, as you have to throw more when making a comeback. Anyway, recall that the Bulldogs' passing game has been much less effective this year than in last year. Opponents are forcing MSU to throw more often than in past seasons, and the results are favoring those opponents.

Mississippi State's style of offense works best when it has a lead. It has the potential to be a big play offense when it's really cooking, but more often than not it grinds things out. If the Bulldogs can't find a way to jump out to some early leads despite the difficulties on the line, they're going to continue to struggle throughout 2011.