Spread offenses and bruising running backs rarely come together.
At Mississippi State, the combination of a new coach with wide-open philosophies and a group of bulky backs returning has the Bulldogs defying convention as they prepare to host a 7 p.m. EST Saturday game against No. 3 Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC West).
Using a shotgun formation with as many as three backs surrounding the quarterback, Mississippi State (4-5, 2-3 SEC West) gives itself several options to choose from and for defenses to consider. Alabama coach Nick Saban said it takes a different mind-set in practice for this “very different” offense.
The centerpiece of first-year head coach Dan Mullen’s atypical scheme is 6-foot-1, 235-pound power back Anthony Dixon, who is coming off a career-topping night at Kentucky. His 252-yard performance was the difference two weeks ago in Lexington, although it was compiled against the SEC’s worst run defense.
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“These guys run the football probably as well as anybody we’ve played against this year,” Saban said. “They have sort of a Florida spread philosophy, and it’s a little difficult, different preparation, so our players are going to have to have to do a really good job of getting prepared for this game and getting ready to stop the plays that they run, because they are not always conventional-type things that you see all the time.”
Alabama brings the league’s best rush-stopping unit that trails only Texas nationally. Dixon’s numbers suffered a week before playing the Wildcats when Florida and its second-best rush defense in the SEC limited Dixon to 53 yards on 15 carries.
The size and effectiveness of Dixon draws comparisons to Alabama’s Mark Ingram, the SEC rushing leader with a average of 127.6 yards per game to Dixon’s 125.1 Mullen, who was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Florida before coming to Starkville, lists several similarities between the two, including their intensity, physicality and vision.
Ingram downplayed hype surrounding the matchup, leaving Dixon duty up to the defense. And they are ready for a challenge.
“It’s always a hard task,” linebacker Rolando McClain said of tackling Dixon. “You’ve got to go and wrap him up. You can’t just put a shoulder in the guy, you have to wrap him up and wait for everyone else to come.”
The Bulldogs also have been known to pull out the no-huddle offense that troubled the Tide when LSU implemented it Saturday. Mullen said there is nothing specific about the Alabama defense that makes it susceptible to confusion when the offense hurries back to the line. It is more about the offense’s comfort in the style that makes it effective, Mullen said.
Tide nose guard Terrence Cody said the no-huddle offense is just one of the many ploys opponents have attempted.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to buckle down and get things right,” he said.
Whether the Bulldogs are playing hurry-up offense, Alabama likely will respond with a nickel formation that involves an extra defensive back and one fewer linebacker. Saban said it would be easier to adjust to the variety of formations Mississippi State presents with that extra back instead of a linebacker, because it’s easier for someone from the secondary to operate in the open spaces the offense creates.
Defending spread offenses typically means less playing time for Cody because of his huge size and lack of speed.
But with a Mississippi State team that still likes running between the tackles, “there is certainly a consideration to just leaving your big guys in there and just playing with them,” Saban said.