Without Washington State Cougars football to watch, many of us have latched onto the Mississippi St. Bulldogs as our team to watch this fall, because when Mike Leach left, there was a lot of curiosity as to how the Air Raid would work out with all the SPEEEEEEEEEED of the SEC! SEC! SEC!
Needless to say, many people were skeptical — not the least of those being Coug fans who watched his system flounder for a couple of years as the team learned what to do. It also didn’t help that MSU missed out on spring practices and also was breaking in a new QB who had spent the past four years running David Shaw’s pro-style offense at Stanford.
Then Leach and KJ Costello lit up the defending champion and No. 6-ranked Louisiana State Tigers. And while nobody doubts it was a vastly diminished version of the one that destroyed everyone and everything last season, it definitely raised some eyebrows that Leach was able to do that in the first game.
For those of us who became Air Raid disciples over the past eight years and watched that game, there were a few really obvious factors that played into the outcome.
First, for some unknown reason, new LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini decided to primarily play man-to-man and blitz with high frequency. We all know that the best way to gum up the Air Raid is to play a ton of zone and muck up the spaces — especially if you have a front four (or three) that can get home without a blitz. This also would have seemed to be a good strategy against a bunch of guys running the Air Raid for the first time, forcing them to make sure and be on the same page as to where to settle into the zone’s soft spots.
Second — or maybe this is 1a because it goes hand in hand with that decision — Leach clearly is operating with better athletes at MSU than he generally had here. That meant when Leach ran mesh for the 20th time on Saturday, there were still receivers outrunning linebackers and then trucking up the field for chunk yards, and when he ran 6 (Four Verts) for the 10th time in the second half, there were receivers on the outside winning their battles up the sideline.
Now, as a Coug fan, you might have been puzzled by all the deep shots taken by Costello. But again, two things: The man-to-man coverage — WSU’s QBs relentlessly faced safeties over the top in the Pac-12 — and Costello coming from an offense where he took deep shots with frequency to his freakishly large receivers. He’s more likely to take that chunk shot than any QB since Connor Halliday. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Halliday originated in a deep-shot offense before Leach’s arrival.)
It all added up to some eye-popping numbers ... well, eye-popping to anyone who hasn’t watched him for the last eight years.
Will the SEC have learned its lesson and watched some Apple Cup game film? We probably won’t find out this weekend — the Bulldogs play Arkansas. It probably won’t much matter what the Razorbacks do.
But until he coaches what people consider a true “winner” — a team that wins the conference, or at least their division — there will always be skepticism. Here’s how Ryan McGee wrapped up his excellent feature on Leach’s move to MSU:
So, until Mike Leach stands on the sideline of a title game, be it conference, national or both, the Air Raid will always be viewed as having a ceiling. And until his quirkiness is displayed behind a podium at that championship’s press conference, many will always write him off as too odd and/or too difficult to push a program to the next level. He knows that. He acts like such talk doesn’t bother him, but it does. That’s why he’s back in the Southeastern Conference. Your best chance to break through any ceiling, be it football success, reputation, or both, is to start with the best possible launching pad. Not so long ago, he thought he’d never have the chance to stand on that pad. Now he does, and as we all learned at LSU, he’s going to pull out all the stops to make sure this chance lasts.
“How’s the saying go? A good coach can take his and beat yours and then take yours and beat his,” he said. “Well, a really good coach, he can be a good coach anywhere. Any coach worth his salt wants to prove that. Every coach is motivated by that at some level. Don’t let any coach try to tell you that he’s not.”
Until we have Cougar football again — and probably for as long as Leach is at MSU — we’ll be rooting hard for Leach to tear up the SEC. He’s got better tools than he ever has had to do it.
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