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K.J., Kylin and the Pirate: How the Air Raid Stormed Back Into the SEC

Mike Leach's SEC head coaching debut was a roaring success. He always knew it would work, even if you didn't.

BATON ROUGE, La.—We were seated together, not quite socially distant at that time, because this was late February and the pandemic… the pandemic was still, reportedly, nowhere near America. So Mike Leach and I, maskless, shared stories for more than an hour in his office.

He talked about how it’s a pain in the ass to find a house in Starkville, Miss. (he vetoed about a dozen before settling on a winner). We talked about how Starkville, less than 15 years ago, enforced a ban on selling cold beer. “Oh, really?!” he responded.

We talked and talked, because that’s what Leach does, he talks and he also calls plays, fantastically calls plays, in fact. We talked more, about his days coaching at Valdosta State, about politics (which he did not want to be quoted on), about his love for Europe and traveling the world (he’s been to at least 35 different countries). “What’s the thing Columbus landed on? I’ve been there.”

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach

We talked about his vacation spot in Key West, about the Colonial Dutch and about Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, his good friend from the Pac-12 who is now his in-state rival.

We talked, too, about football, specifically about his offense, the notorious Air Raid, and its feasibility in the big, bad, physical SEC.

Of all the things we talked about, this topic produced maybe the most eye-opening words. Bold words. Confident words. Words from a man who maybe knew what was coming.

Can the Air Raid really have success in the SEC?

“Yeah, I think we can. I’ve always thought stuff translates pretty well,” Leach said. “Everybody says you can’t do this in this league or that in that league. But how!? Everybody starts with ‘Well you can’t do this in the NFL or SEC because our corners are all Deion Sanders.’ Well, no, they’re not.”

The pre-pandemic conversation with Leach in March came to life Saturday, exploding in a historic affair in Tiger Stadium, when the Air Raid’s SEC debut resulted in Mississippi State's season-opening 44–34 win over the defending national champion LSU Tigers.

What’d this entail? A record-setting performance from Stanford transfer and State quarterback K.J. Costello (36 completions, 623 yards and 5 TDs). A third-down masterpiece of throwing-and-catching (50% on those all-important plays). A running back having 10 times more receiving yards than he had on the ground (Kylin Hill had eight catches for 158 yards).

K.J., Kylin and the Pirate. They ruined the debut of LSU’s new-look defense under Bo Pelini. They ended LSU’s 16-game win streak, a span of 672 days, and they became the first opponent, not named Alabama, to win in Baton Rouge in 1,092 days (the last one: Troy in 2017). Costello himself set three records: the school mark for passing yards, the SEC mark for passing yards and he became the only quarterback in the history of Tiger Stadium to throw for more than 500 yards. As a reminder, he threw for 123 yards more than 500 yards.

K.J., Kylin and the Pirate kicked open the door to the SEC frat house and tossed in a firebomb. They pulled their black-sailed ship beside LSU’s riverboat, hopped aboard, lit in flames and sailed away with purple-lined gold.

Mississippi State QB KJ Costello is all smiles after a win over LSU

K.J. Costello set the SEC single-game passing record in his Mississippi State debut.

Everybody believes Texas is back, but how about the Air Raid? It’s back in the SEC, back where, maybe, it belongs, back where Hal Mumme and Leach carved through the league in the late 1990s at Kentucky.

“He’s the best coach in the game. I’ve been saying that for years,” Mumme said in a text message to Sports Illustrated on Saturday night. “He’s dangerous now because he’s at a place with great skill and a history of great defense. Great to see the Air Raid back in the SEC.”

Leach and Mumme and them, they do things differently. Even Dana Holgorsen, who is also on that tree. They’re a different breed of coach. Their attack and their approach, it’s just, well, it’s just different.

And it works, too. SEC or not. In a way, Leach exposed the league on Saturday. Like a gambler at the poker table, Leach saw the SEC’s bet—its big, physical style, that defensive mentality, the running game and the 20-hour work days—and he raised it, raised it big, too. You don’t have to work 20 hours a day (and Leach doesn’t). You don’t have to run the ball consistently (State had nine yards rushing Saturday). You don’t have to lean on defense so much (the Bulldogs allowed 425 yards to LSU).

You don’t have to do any of that. Football can be played differently and also be successful. Some might say it’s risky, especially in this league, such strong defensive lines and skilled defensive backs. Leach shrugs at such. He’s a risk taker, a gambler at heart.

“It’s like your mom tells you, ‘Somebody tells you to jump over a cliff, do you do it?’ Sometimes I did,” Leach said casually during the postgame news conference.

He jumped alright, jumped to, of all places, Starkville, Miss. And those wanting to know why, just look at the man’s past. He’s an adventurer, on and off the field, and he wanted a new one.

“I wanted to see what was on the other side of the hill,” he said in that interview in March. And you only get one turn in this thing called life, he adds.

He’s from Wyoming, and so small-town America fits him. Mississippi fits him. Mississippi State fits him too. It’s always been a place for somewhat renegade coaches, often despised by their peers (hello, Jackie Sherrill and Rick Stansbury).

But Leach fits for other reasons, too. One of his favorite foods is collard greens, and no one makes better greens than Mississippi. He got a good dose of those and other Deep South favorites during his recruiting spin around the state before the pandemic. The fried porkchop from the Louisville gas station, the crab claws down on the Gulf Coast, the steaks in Jackson.

And then there was that bar in Hattiesburg, where Leach took part in karaoke, singing the sweet tunes of Jethro Tull’s “Nothing Is Easy.” The only reason he partook, he claims, is that there were three people in the bar, including the bartender, and no one knew who in the heck he was.

“I should have said ‘I’m Joey Freshwater,’” Leach laughs, a playful dig at his rival Kiffin. “There weren’t a lot of witnesses in me butchering that song.”

Leach will talk about just about anything. After all, in the news conference following one of his biggest wins, he talked about how poor he was at math while in school 40 years ago. But he talked too about the schematic reason behind his team’s success Saturday: the LSU cornerbacks played such tight coverage at the line of scrimmage that it left Leach no choice. He called, over and over again, deep corner routes down the sideline and outside the numbers, his receivers straddling the out-of-bounds border and the white stenciled numbers in Tiger Stadium.

“The space was getting crowded more and more and so we had to go over the top,” he said.

Over the top they went. Costello, in fact, had 12 completions of 20 yards or more. He had five of 30 yards or more, including a 75-yard touchdown to Hill.

LSU became the first defending title winner to lose its opener since Michigan in 1998. Sure, the Tigers were short handed. Their top defensive player, Derek Stingley, missed the game with a non-COVID related illness he contracted Friday. They were also without starting tackle Glen Logan for off-the-field issues. Over the summer, they had key players (Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Shelvin) opt out, and, yes, they were missing 2019 Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. In fact, LSU’s lineup featured just three players who started the national championship game against Clemson just nine months ago.

All of that said, all the excuses, all the reasons, the Air Raid did things to the Tigers that few SEC offenses have ever done.

K.J., Kylin and the Pirate took a poop in the gumbo. The Air Raid is back in the SEC, and Leach always did know it would work, even if you didn’t.

“My first exposure at Division I was the University of Kentucky and it worked then,” he says. “I didn’t think much had changed.”

No, no it hasn’t.

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