Maybe it was Bo Pelini’s fault.
Maybe if Pelini — fired as LSU’s defensive coordinator after one miserable season — hadn’t kept playing man-to-man defense against Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, Mississippi State wouldn’t have thrown for 623 yards and five touchdowns in a 44-34 win against the Tigers in Leach’s first game as an SEC head coach. Maybe if Pelini had just played zone and dropped eight into coverage, we might have had more realistic expectations of a team that runs an offense that relies on voluminous practice reps that had missed out on most of those reps because of a global pandemic. More important, maybe the Bulldogs might have had a better understanding of their own situation. Maybe they would have comprehended the height of the mountain a painfully young roster would need to climb in Year 1.
Instead, we acted surprised when the Bulldogs crashed to earth over the next month. After averaging more than 10 yards a throw against LSU, quarterback K.J. Costello averaged 4.5 yards an attempt in his next four starts. He was replaced by true freshman Will Rogers, who averaged a still-heinous 5.7 yards an attempt in his first college season but who seemed to grow more comfortable in the offense with each game.
“I don’t think we overcame the hangover of beating those guys,” Leach said this month. That win obscured what would become obvious throughout October: The Bulldogs didn’t really know how to run the offense yet. As soon as defenses started showing six or seven in the box and then dropping seven or eight into coverage, the quarterbacks struggled to make the correct reads. The receivers struggled to make the correct route adjustments. The linemen struggled to remember their pass-blocking rules.
There was a perfectly logical reason for this, of course. None of these players had a spring practice or normal summer of pass skeleton to commit the blocking rules to muscle memory or to work out the quarterback-receiver timing. When Leach’s offense was humming at Texas Tech or at Washington State, the connection between QB and receivers seemed borderline telepathic. That came from thousands of throws. The line had been recruited and trained to spend most of its time pass blocking. Mississippi State’s line had been recruited by its previous two coaches to either dominate in the run game or to block for run-pass option plays that looked like runs up front.
The bright spot early was coordinator Zach Arnett’s 3-3-5 defense, which wasn’t installed as a nod to the fact that Joe Lee Dunn popularized that scheme in Starkville decades ago. It was an attempt by Leach to combine a scheme that drives offensive coaches batty with a program that always seems to find a few great athletes for its defense. “We’ve got talented guys, and they’ve got the right work ethic,” Arnett said. “They want to show up every day and put in the work, and they want to be good. Usually, when you’ve got those two things, you give yourself a chance.”
And when the offense started to accumulate those reps and started finding its way, the Bulldogs did have a chance. They went .500 in their final six games, and they were in the game in the fourth quarter of all three losses. And they did it with a roster that got reduced during the season by opt-outs and by shifting lineups because of COVID-19 protocols. By season’s end, 26 Mississippi State players made their first career start. That topped the Power 5, and that youth, plus a first-year staff minus spring practice, was a recipe for a bumpy first season together.