What Challenges Do Mike Leach's Mississippi State Offense Present to LSU Football?

Brian Smith

The LSU Tigers will be playing their first game of the season against arch rival Mississippi State. Here are the players and situations LSU fans need to know about.

It’s just over a week away from LSU’s first football game. Believe it or not, it’s almost here.

With the arrival of now Mississippi State coach Mike Leach in the SEC, the Tigers will receive the first crack at defending his vaunted passing attack. While there are many different names given to Leach’s offense, it’s commonly known as what’s become so popular in today’s college football culture, the Air Raid Offense.

Pass it, keep on passing, and pass it some more. That’s what this offense does, generically speaking. Do not be fooled, however, as it’s ultra-simplistic design does create complex problems for opposing defenses.

That probably sounds odd, but think of it this way. In basketball, oftentimes four players attempt to free one player for a shot. That’s much like the Air Raid. Wide receivers will clear out an area, a zone, or section of the field to present a one-on-one matchup.

It could be a running back working out of the backfield (more on that in a moment), or it may be that big-bodied boundary wide receiver getting a chance to catch a 50-50 ball versus a smaller cornerback. Whatever it may be, it’s not just thrown together.

Leach, also known as “The Pirate,” designs plays to allow for a favorable matchup. He does it well. In fact, he may be the best Air Raid coach in college football. Now let’s look at four prime factors that LSU coach Ed Orgeron and his defensive coaching staff will be preparing for a week from Saturday in Death Valley.

Quarterback Play

If Washington State quarterbacks nobody really knew much about or garnered much recruiting attention can shred practically any Pac 12 defense it faces, that’s a sign that the Air Raid can really manipulate a defense.

It’s not the SEC, but the PAC 12 still produces NFL talent. If Leach and his staff did that at Washington State, imagine what he’s going to do with the talent the Bulldogs can attract in Mississippi and the surrounding area. For this season, however, LSU just needs to worry about Stanford transfer KJ Costello. He was a big-time recruit coming out of high school, and Costello battled injuries in Palo Alto before graduating and deciding to transfer to Mississippi State. Most people expect him to win the starting signal caller position, and he brings a unique skill set to Starkville, MS.

First off, he has a big arm. That’s not the norm for Leach’s signal callers. He’s usually trotting out rhythm passers that utilize timing. Costello will add the ability to throw a dart into a tight window. His arm talent likely means that LSU will need to mix up coverages and not just play cover one (man defense) like it would while playing against a conventional offense. That’s not all LSU needs to worry about with Costello.

He’s not a runner, but he can keep plays alive and he will make a play with his legs to pick up a third down. Those quarterback scrambles can keep drives alive. Now, here are the statistics that will simply blow you away.

During the past five seasons at Washington State, Leach’s Air Raid offense produced the following passing yards per game:

2019 - 437.2

2018 - 373.8

2017 - 366.8

2016 - 362.5

2015 - 389.2

Combining Leach’s coaching acumen with Costello and all the skill talent that Mississippi State possesses, including future NFL running back and now senior Kylin Hill (6-foot-0, 215 -- 1,350 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns last season), and it’s likely to be a potent offense in Starkville.

A few other names to know include senior wide receiver Osirus Mitchell (6-foot-5, 200 -- six touchdown receptions last year), junior college transfer wide receiver Kaleb Ducking (6-foot-5, 200), and junior wide receiver Austin Williams (6-foot-3, 200 -- two receiving touchdowns last season).

With Leach, one should also expect another player or two to emerge. Perhaps it’s another running back that’s adept at catching the football out of the backfield and/or plays in the slot, or it could be a speedy slot wide receiver that’s been sitting on Mississippi State’s roster and did not even play much during the 2019 season. Leach will find one of these players, if not two or three. That’s what he does. 

Slowing Down Kylin Hill

If you want an every down running back that’s capable of running by, over, or around opposing defenders, Hill fits the bill. He’s an absolutely terrific football player. Hill was stymied by the LSU defense last fall, to the tune of 15 rushes for a mere 34 yards. Hill will be motivated by last season’s game to make something happen next weekend. Now here’s the catch, quite literally.

The Tigers need to defend against Hill in the flat, in the slot, and out of the backfield during option routes (likely versus a linebacker) and during the always dangerous wheel route.

At all times, LSU defenders need to know where Hill is lined up, as well as recognize the players around him. The Air Raid does a great job of creating leverage for pass catchers with “rub routes” or otherwise known as picks.

If Hill gets the football with a full head of steam in the secondary, he can light up the scoreboard in a heartbeat. That’s going to be a priority all game long. Which brings up the obvious question.

How will Mississippi State run the football? Hill is too good a ball carrier to get 10 totes per contest like one might expect from a Mike Leach game plan at Washington State. HIll is electric. It’s hard to say, but LSU needs to be ready for just about anything, including jet sweeps, reverses, and several different variations of a draw play.

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