The Mississippi State Bulldogs are being introduced to the Mike Leach Experience. Much as the Pittsburgh Panthers can knock off an elite team one week and then stumble at home the next, Leach and his teams have often fit a similar pattern.
By Matt Zemek
Leach is an annoying, thorny opponent for top teams (he doesn’t always beat them, but he often makes them sweat), but his teams will sometimes lose games they frankly shouldn’t lose. Leach gets more out of less, but when expectations begin to build and his team becomes a target for everyone else in his conference, his teams generally haven’t handled that kind of pressure well. Leach likes to lie in the weeds an ambush an unsuspecting victim, but playing the favorite isn’t his thing. That was shown in this past Saturday’s home loss to Arkansas as a heavy favorite and a No. 14-ranked team, following the upset of defending national champion LSU on the road.
Everyone expected MSU to be 1-1 after two games… but not by beating LSU and losing to Arkansas. That’s Mike Leach for you. Let’s see what MSU has to do against Kentucky this weekend, in a very intriguing game.
1 – The defensive front is front and center
Kentucky rushed for over 400 yards this past weekend against MSU’s main rival, Ole Miss. It’s hard to believe that a team could rush for over 400 yards in a game and lose, but Kentucky pulled it off. The Wildcats have a strong offensive line which overpowered Ole Miss and scored 35 points in regulation. That would normally be enough for UK, given how good its defenses have been in recent seasons, but Ole Miss and Lane Kiffin exposed Mark Stoops’ defense on Saturday, so the quality of the Wildcats’ offensive line didn’t get the national attention it probably deserved. Mississippi State has to know that Kentucky will want to lean on the Bulldogs’ defensive front, controlling clock and keeping the ball away from K.J. Costello. Mississippi State’s front four will have to answer the call.
2 – Patience from K.J. Costello in the passing game
Arkansas and coach Sam Pittman put lots of defenders in coverage and made it hard for K.J. Costello to throw over the top of a zone defense. It is true that Mike Leach needs to make adjustments, but success begins and ends with Costello making more responsible decisions with the ball. It’s not as though Costello played a mistake-free game in the win over LSU; he simply made more big plays than the number of mistakes. Arkansas took away the big play, however, so when opponents guard against the deep ball, Costello needs to be willing and able to take what the defense gives him and not become anxious about needing to hit home runs. Kentucky’s defense is obviously vulnerable against a good passer; Matt Corral of Ole Miss (who was not an especially good quarterback last year) hit 24 of 29 passes against Kentucky. If Corral can light up Big Blue, Costello can as well… but patience is required.
3 – Self-reliance
LSU made a lot of mistakes, helping Mississippi State win that game. MSU earned that win, but LSU certainly pitched in and gave the Bulldogs a favorable nudge at several points. Great teams don’t need the opponent to help them out. Let’s see if MSU can win a game if its defense doesn’t force a turnover and if Kentucky doesn’t make any large mistakes on special teams.