Hello, Mike Leach, we meet again. It’s been a few years and some things have changed—the last time NC State faced a Leach team, the Pack’s head coach was Chuck Amato, and Leach was at Texas Tech.
Among those things that have not changed: Leach’s love for the air raid. For good reason, too, since it helped him lead revitalization projects at both Texas Tech and Washington State, bringing impressive success to places that would not be considered hot coaching (or playing) destinations within their leagues. Now he’s trying to repeat the process at Mississippi State with the same essential blueprint: throw the ball a whole lot.
Last year was Leach’s first in Starkville, and while the Bulldogs had their moments, the team finished the regular season just 3-7. (Then went ahead and played in a bowl game anyway, where they beat Tulsa.) Mississippi State averaged barely 21 points per game.
The Bulldogs will need some time to find whatever peak is possible under Leach’s direction, not the least because the team is young. Last year it was really young, with freshmen leading MSU in passing, rushing, and receiving. Twenty-seven players made their debuts for MSU last season, and nine of them were true freshmen.
Understandably, the Bulldogs had their problems with consistency, but they weren’t bad, and the experience gained last year should pay dividends in the near term. Mississippi State may well turn out to be a bowl team (uh, with a winning record this time) in 2021, depending on how its key younger players develop.
A lot rests with sophomore quarterback Will Rogers, whose maturation is essential to a Bulldogs offense with more bite. Rogers averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt last year, but completed 69 percent of his passes and threw seven picks on 346 attempts, which ain’t too bad. Against Louisiana Tech last weekend, he was 39-47 (83%) for 370 yards (7.9 per att.), three touchdowns and one interception.
Leach’s intent generally is to use the pass as a proxy for a running game, with actual running plays being mainly “I wonder what this button does” moments. MSU averaged 19 rush attempts per game in ‘20, less than half its per-game average from 2019. This did not help the Bulldogs find any more success on the ground, though, as they averaged a mere 2.4 yards per carry.
Leaning so heavily on the passing game can lead to some interesting numbers. Take running back Jo’quavious Marks, for instance, who carried the ball 70 times last year ... and also caught 60 passes. Really you could say he carried the ball 130 times if you wanted to, since he averaged 4.5 yards per catch. He caught nine passes for 27 yards against Louisiana Tech.
The Bulldogs are hoping to generate more explosive plays in the passing game this year and hope a couple of transfers will help them. Jamire Calvin, who came over from Washington State, had three catches for 67 yards and a score in the opener. Makai Polk, formerly of Cal, had a team-high 10 receptions last week. And they already know they can rely on Jaden Walley, who went for 52-718-2 as a true freshman in 2020.
With a deeper receiving corps, and with everybody being more comfortable with the system, MSU’s offense figures to make strides. I suspect it’s better to be catching the Bulldogs now rather than later on in the fall. They’ll still need to be tougher up front, and who knows what they can reasonably expect to do on the ground (probably not a lot). That’ll be an issue all year, but not necessarily a defining one.
On the defensive side, Mississippi State found itself some playmakers to build around in Leach’s first season. One of them was cornerback Emmanuel Forbes, who picked off five passes and returned three for scores, earning him freshman All-SEC and freshman All-America honors. Another was linebacker Aaron Brule, who had 77 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss.
The Bulldogs were consistently good against the run, as only three opponents cracked 4.0 yards per carry. The pass defense was generally average at best: 64th in YPA, 66th in completion percentage, 70th in passer rating. (A bit worse than NC State across the board.)
Devin Leary should have his opportunities to make plays but no doubt the Pack would love to calm things down with some consistent success from its running backs, especially in a night game on the road.
It’s a litmus test game in a lot of ways, no doubt about that.