Dan Mullen will be trying to stop some of the same strategies he helped popularize this weekend against Alabama.
The Mississippi State head coach has long used the quarterback as an extra weapon in the running game. He did it with Tim Tebow at Florida. He did it with Dak Prescott in Starkville before he went to the NFL. Now he’s seeing some of that same strategy in Alabama’s game plan in 2016.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities,” Mullen said on the SEC coaches teleconference Wednesday. “We’ve been doing this for years, and it looks like they’ve incorporated a lot of what we do.”
Both teams have quarterbacks who can hurt defenses with their legs. Missisippi State has Nick Fitzgerald, and Alabama has Jalen Hurts. Fitzgerald ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ win over Texas A&M last week. Hurts ran for 114 against LSU, including a game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“When we kind of started building this offense quite a long time ago,” Mullen said, “we wanted to make sure that defenses had to defend all 11 players that were out there on the field, Sideline to sideline, defend all 11 players. So to make the quarterback a viable option that they have to defend just puts more stress on the defense and is another weapon for the offense.”
Saban’s offensive philosophy has evolved in that regard. He’s allowed offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to install more option plays and designed quarterback runs into the Crimson Tide offense to utilize Hurts’ athleticism.
He credits Mullen for doing that for years, from Tebow until today with Fitzgerald.
“When you have a talented guy that’s big and strong and athletic and can throw it pretty well, too, it makes it a very challenging thing to do to be able to play both of those things,” Saban said Wednesday. “That’s certainly what Mississippi State has been able to do, and (Fitzgerald’s) done a great job of doing that.”
Both young quarterbacks have their flaws. Fitzgerald, a sophomore, completed just 58.1 percent of his passes against the Aggies and had two interceptions. The true freshman Hurts was 10-of-19 for just 107 yards with an interception against LSU.
However, Mullen said that a quarterback’s athletic ability can help make up for those issues early on. That’s what Alabama’s doing with Hurts, and it’s what he’s doing with his own quarterback.
“But I think another thing that helps him is he’s got great athletic ability,” Mullen said of Fitzgerald, “which allows him to improvise and make things happen on the field while he’s developing to be a passer.”