Mississippi State football: 3 ways the Air Raid attack needs to adjust to stop slump
If you know Mike Leach, you know that it is his way or the highway when it comes to the program he is running. That’s why when Saturday, after Mississippi State was dominated in a 24-2 loss to Kentucky, the fact Leach said there might be a purge of players shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
Yet getting rid of a couple of several players won’t help what has happened to this Bulldogs’ offense over the past 2 weeks. After putting up a historic performance against LSU — and let’s face it, that performance is looking less and less impressive as the weeks go by — KJ Costello and the Air Raid attack have been grounded.
So how do things change in Starkville before this season completely falls apart? It starts with getting the quarterback’s mindset right.
Much like the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold on his infamous moment on Monday Night Football, but it seems as if Costello is sometimes seeing ghosts out there on the field.
With defenses dropping 8 men into coverage, it could seem as if Costello is thinking he is facing 15 defenders, not the usual 11. It is highly doubtful that anytime during his career at Stanford did he face a defense willing to sacrifice a run or short pass as Arkansas and Kentucky did. It is fine to take the short pass. Against the Wildcats, Costello averaged 4.2 yards per completion. Granted, that isn’t a lot, but when the defense is basically giving you those yards, you need to take them.
Instead, he has been forcing it. It is hard to throw 7 interceptions to just 1 touchdown in 2 games without admitting you are forcing the ball. It’s a chess match between him and the defenses. The long ball was there against LSU, but, in all likelihood, won’t be there but a couple of times a game now.
It doesn’t fall all on Costello’s shoulders, though. As steadfast as Leach is on not giving up on his Air Raid attack, he has to relent a little bit when it comes to the rushing attack, especially considering he has an All-SEC rusher in his backfield.
Mississippi State has just 54 rushes in 3 games — and that figure includes sacks.
The Bulldogs ran the ball just 14 times for 20 yards against Kentucky. Kylin Hill, he of 1,350 rushing yards last season, received just 7 carries against a defense that was just daring Leach to run the ball. While Hill also accounted for 15 catches for 79 yards, there is no excuse for him to just that little amount of carries.
This is where you stop me and say, “Well, isn’t a pass to Hill basically a run in Leach’s offense?” My answer: sort of. Yet I guarantee that if Hill gets a chance to establish himself as a threat running the ball, instead of having to catch a pass and then look upfield, he will certainly put up more than 20 yards against almost every defense. It would also make the defense think about the run, something it certainly hasn’t had to do in the past 2 weeks.
And, as outside wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier, Jr. told SDS last week, the pressure is on the wide receivers to make this system work.
Watching replays of the Arkansas and Kentucky games, it became apparent that the receivers weren’t exactly sure how to adjust to this new defense put in front of them. Sure, Leach has seen it, but these players haven’t. Granted, in this system where timing is everything and if a receiver misses his route things are bound to go awry, a receiver must run his route correctly. Yet when Costello had more time than usual, the receivers failed to improvise, leaving their quarterback out to dry.
It had been 47 games (interestingly enough against Cal in 2017) since Leach’s offense had been kept out of the end zone for an entire game. Until Saturday, he’d never had an offense that failed to score a single point.
The coach is certain that his system will work anywhere, even in the SEC West. After a grand debut, that notion is debatable. If there are players who haven’t bought into the system, I’m more than certain that Leach will get rid of them, yet for right now, a purge isn’t what would cure the Bulldogs on offense.
It’s going to take some adjustments and major mental strength to right the Pirate Ship in Starkville. Otherwise, the LSU game will be remembered as an anomaly, not the norm.