By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – To hear Les Koenning tell it, calling plays is not an esoteric exercise shrouded in great mystery.
Mississippi State’s offensive coordinator has been doing it for years, and he knows it’s not so much speed chess as it is Connect Four – you make some countermoves, but it’s ultimately about stringing together good plays.
“If I’ve done a good job as a coordinator – and I don’t say this as a bad fashion, I wouldn’t say it (that way) – I could give you a sheet of paper, and you could read it off of a sheet of paper to call plays,” Koenning said. “The whole thing we do as an offensive staff, we try to prepare our kids for everything that they can see. And if we’ve done that, then they’ll have a chance to be successful.”
MSU head coach Dan Mullen lets Koenning call most of the plays, although he admitted to calling a halfback pass against Georgia that ended in an interception. Koenning accused Mullen of being overly modest, noting the value of his boss’ input.
Mullen was, after all, offensive coordinator for two BCS championship teams at Florida.
What makes game day play-calling such a relatively simple matter for Koenning is what happens before the game and between series. It’s about writing good scripts, as the coaches put it.
The plays to be run on MSU’s first series of a game are normally predetermined. In last week’s 49-16 win over Alcorn State, for example, the Wildcat formation with Chad Bumphis was written into that script. On the third play of the game, Bumphis lined up at quarterback and took off for a 24-yard gain.
The script-writing doesn’t stop there. Between each series, the offensive coaches put their heads together and draw up a plan – always flexible, of course – for the next set of downs.
“Les takes that script and what we decide to run, and he goes through them, and we run those plays,” Mullen said. “You’ll hear some things. You’ll hear interjections – John (Hevesy, line coach) saying, ‘Hey, what can we do?’ and, ‘Run this,’ or I’ll come in and say, ‘Take a shot here,’ or, ‘Let’s throw the ball here.’
“Les basically calls all the plays during the course of the game. You need to have that just to keep the rhythm of the game going.”
Finding a rhythm
Rhythm is something MSU’s offense is finding more of these days. No statistic backs that up better than this one: The Bulldogs have put together three touchdown drives of 90-plus yards this year.
They had just one of that length last season.
“The kids now understand the system, understand what’s going on,” Koenning said. “They understand the checks, they understand what we’re looking at. Any time you have that, any continuity you can create offensively, each year you’re going to get better and better and better because they understand more and more and more.”
They’re efficient drives, too: 91 yards on seven plays (vs. Memphis), 93 yards on 10 plays (vs. Georgia) and 91 yards on 11 plays (vs. Alcorn State).
Including those drives, State has compiled nine scoring drives of 70 yards or more; it had 13 in 2009. Average number of plays on those drives: 8.2 last year, 7.3 this year.
“There is an old clichampé for offensive coaches: Anything over eight plays, usually something bad’s going to happen,” said Koenning. “I don’t say that bad, but usually you can go about seven to eight plays where everybody can hit on all cylinders, and then something’s going to happen. And we talk to our kids, especially our quarterbacks, how to manage those situations.”
The key to that efficiency is hitting one or two big plays. State’s had 36 plays of 20 yards or more, and seven of those have gone for 50 or more yards.
“You’re not going to go 90 yards without hitting a couple of big plays on those drives,” Mullen said. “We’re starting to make some bigger plays.”
On the flip side, a really big play can make for a quick drive, and that’s usually preferable. Through five games, MSU has eight touchdown drives of three plays or less, compared to nine all last season. The average distance of those drives: 46.0 yards last year, 46.8 this year.
Take for example Vick Ballard’s 75-yard touchdown run against Alcorn State. It capped a three-play, 84-yard drive.
“It was pretty much just all 11 guys doing their job and everything falling into place,” left tackle Derek Sherrod said. “It was also great running by him.”
Some credit must go to the guy calling the play, too, but he deflects that credit. Long drive, short drive – it’s about getting the ball down the field as efficiently as possible.
“There’s no miracle to calling a play, there’s no miracle to doing it,” Koenning said. “The issue is, execute. If we execute and communicate on the field, we’ve got a chance to be successful.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.