Mississippi State football: Bulldogs' best chance in Egg Bowl is ... running the ball?
Mike Leach is well aware of what a potent rushing attack can do to keep an explosive offense off the field and get antsy. As the head coach for Washington State in last year’s Cheez-It Bowl, Leach watched helplessly as Air Force used an eye-popping 14 minutes and 52 seconds of the clock on its opening drive as the Falcons drove 98 yards on 20 plays. You could sense Leach’s offense biting at the bit waiting their turn.
Now, in an ironic twist, it is Leach who could — and yes, possibly should — be using the rush to keep an opposing offense off the field.
That is Mississippi State’s best shot at beating rival Ole Miss on Saturday, and the other options aren’t even close. The Rebels are putrid when it comes to stopping the run, ranking 123 out of 127 FBS schools by allowing 243.43 yards per game on the ground.
Six of the Rebels’ 7 opponents reached 150 yards rushing, and 3 of them cleared 300.
Granted, the running game isn’t exactly a strong suit of a Leach offense. OK, that is an understatement. The Bulldogs are dead last in the FBS by averaging 21.57 rushing yards per game, almost 45 yards lower than the next team. Yet that number is deceiving when you remember that Leach has all but given up on the running game after the team has fallen behind … and sometimes even before that.
Taking advantage of the Rebels’ soft run defense would be advantageous in two ways: First, the Bulldogs can definitely gain yards on the ground, therefore opening up the passing lanes even more. Two, much like Air Force did against Wazzu, it would keep Lane Kiffin’s high-octane, play sheet-flying offense off the field.
Don’t kid yourself: Kiffin and the Rebels are going to score often against this Bulldogs’ defense, so limiting their chances is going to be a huge factor.
It’s not like State doesn’t have the running backs to get the job done. Sure, having Kylin Hill would have helped, but the combination of Jo’Quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson at least gives the Bulldogs options. Especially if Ole Miss decided to go small and quick and play with more defensive backs and fewer linebackers than usual.
Before the season, Bulldogs running back coach Eric Mele told Saturday Down South that the Bulldogs were deep at the running back position and that each back, including Marks and Johnson, brings something different to the offense. It is now time to put them to use and ride what can be a strength for this offense against what is certainly the weakness of Ole Miss’ defense.
Of course asking Leach to run the ball is almost like asking a Mississippi State fan to root for the Rebels, so this could very well not happen, but it’s not like he hasn’t done it before. In 2016, his Wazzu team ran for 200 yards 3 times, including 280 yards on 40 attempts against Oregon.
He should do it again because in this year’s Egg Bowl, for the Bulldogs to have the best chance to win and keep bragging rights in Starkville, it will take Leach flipping the script.