Week 2 brings us a battle of new head coaches in the SEC. Mississippi State is a national darling right now after a monster upset of LSU to open the season.
Of course, it’s been one week, so now’s not the time for overreaction. Maybe LSU, which lost basically everyone from last year’s team, was badly overrated and is actually really bad, making last week’s win not that impressive. Or maybe this truly is the most talented team Mike Leach has ever coached and the Bulldogs are an SEC championship dark horse. We’ll learn a lot more about everyone on Saturday.
Meet the Bulldogs
(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)
Mississippi State finally became the SEC team that pulled the trigger on the talented but volatile Mike Leach, and one game in, the investment is paying off. The Leach-led Bulldogs knocked off defending champion LSU 44-34 in Leach’s first game. Quarterback K.J. Costello, a transfer from Stanford, threw for an SEC-record 623 yards in the win.
To beat the Bulldogs, you have to scheme for Leach’s Air Raid offense and for DC Zach Arnett’s unique 3-3-5 defense, both of which we’ll cover here.
- Absolutely relentless passing attack likely to wear any secondary down
- Speedy back end good at preventing big runs
- Exotic blitzes can pressure the quarterback
- Pass protection may be iffy
- Unable to disrupt efficient rushing attacks
- May get into a lot of third-and-longs
When Mississippi State has the ball
All these rankings are out of the 72 teams that have played an FBS game so far. Also keep in mind that these numbers are from just one game for each team, so take them with a grain of salt.
The passing game will do the heavy lifting for the Bulldogs, as the run game has little purpose beyond keeping the defense honest. What’s interesting is that Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill is really good, so Leach has had to get creative in finding ways to get him touches.
Meet the Air Raid
The Air Raid’s long and storied history actually starts in the SEC, when Hal Mumme was named Kentucky coach in 1997. Mumme’s unique scheme took the SEC by storm. In 1998, the Wildcats came to Little Rock and saw Tim Couch complete 47 of 67 passes for 499 yards (all opponent records against Arkansas)… but the Razorbacks survived 27-20. After that season, Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops got the Oklahoma job and, having faced Mumme’s offense for the last two seasons, decided to poach Kentucky OC Mike Leach to install the same thing in Norman. Thus the spread of the Air Raid began. Leach eventually went to Texas Tech, and now Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Houston, and several other schools have Air Raid ties. Many more offensive coaches have added Air Raid concepts to their own offenses (including Bobby Petrino, as we’ll see in a minute).
The Air Raid is built around some basic concepts that, when executed properly, are difficult to stop even for a prepared defense. Leach differs from other Air Raid coaches – like his former pupil Kliff Kingsbury – in that he has done little to change his scheme. What Mississippi State rolled out Saturday against LSU is not significantly different than what Kentucky was running with Couch in 1998.
This keeps things simple for the offense… but also for the defense. Leach ended his time in Pullman with seven straight losses in the Apple Cup against rival Washington, failing to score 20 points in any of them. In 2018, after a 28-15 Washington win against favored Wazzu, Huskies’ defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake didn’t hold back talking about Leach’s style:
“It makes it really easy to gameplan when an offense does the same thing every year… hopefully [Leach] remains here for a long time. That would be awesome.”
So that’s the downside. But Lake is a really good defensive coordinator, Washington is usually really talented, and Leach going 36-36 in Pac-12 play at one of the worst Pac-12 schools speaks to his ability to coach.
Concept #1 – Mesh
It all starts with the Mesh, a simple crossing concept between two inside receivers. The outside receivers go deeper and clear the underneath, forcing a safety (or even a linebacker) to stay with the crossers across the entire field.
This was one of many plays were LSU simply couldn’t keep up. Of Mississippi State’s 623 passing yards, a staggering 383 of them came after the catch.
For comparison, here’s Leach calling the exact same play in the 1998 Arkansas-Kentucky game:
Concept #2 – Four Verticals
Everyone who’s played video games knows this one. If the secondary wants to get aggressive over the middle, then sending four receivers deep will lead to some poor cornerback having to play with no help. The actual Four Verticals play isn’t as simple and sending four receivers on go routes: there are actually some reads on the fly that can turn the inside routes into posts to split the safeties, as we see in the above gif.
Concept #3 – Flats
The ol’ RB Flat concept is central to the Air Raid. As commentators have noted for years, this is basically a run play, because it gets the back in space behind blockers. If the Hogs want to play any man defense, then one of the linebackers will have to get out here and make this tackle. Good luck.
Concept #4 – Tunnel Screen
Screens are a hallmark of the Air Raid. This is actually a double screen, with Costello throwing the tunnel but also having a slip screen to the backside. It’s another way to wear out the defense and collect that delicious YAC.
The Air Raid’s position definitions are fairly rigid. The outside receivers – X as the split end on the weak side, and Z as the flanker on the strong side – will run both downfield and crossing routes, depending on the formation. The inside receivers – Y as the tight end on the strong side, and H as the slot receiver who can go to either side – do a lot of crossing routes, wheel routes, and flat routes.
Glancing at the stats, you can see that Mississippi State had a lot of success attacking with outside receivers Osirus Mitchell and Tyrell Shavers. In fact, those two plus Hill out of the backfield were responsible for 80% of Mississippi State’s receiving production. Hill was used in flat routes like the one shown above, and he scored a touchdown on a long wheel route to the boundary after the split end took out the cornerback. Motion from slot receiver JaVonta Payton caused a lot of confusion for LSU’s defense.
So how do you defend against this defense? Not missing tackles is a good start. Like any timing-based, pass-heavy offense, there will be a high rate of the defense covering all its bases. On one-third or more of dropbacks, the quarterback will simply find no one open, so he’ll have to check down, throw it away, take a sack, scramble, or try to force a throw, which can lead to a pick. As good as Costello was, he threw 22 incomplete passes, threw two picks, lost a fumble, and took five sacks against LSU. If the offense can’t generate big plays off missed tackles, it will often have its drives peter out after stringing together a couple incompletions and a couple short completions. That was more or less what the Hogs successfully did against Texas Tech in 2014.
One thing to not do is what new LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini tried, and that’s a heavy blitz. I get why Pelini did it (he wanted to test a new QB in a new system), but the Air Raid simply has too many good hot route options, especially against the man blitzes that LSU kept bringing. Instead, you have to generate a rush straight up the middle. By my count, two of Costello’s sacks, one of his picks, and his lost fumble all came on plays where there was a rush straight up the middle. The Air Raid doesn’t really move the pocket, so a pocket passer won’t be able to step into throws if he’s pressured straight up the middle.
When Arkansas has the ball
The offense is rightly getting the accolades, but the Bulldog defense had a good first game, though it’s hard to tell how good LSU will be on offense, given all that it lost. LSU’s 34 points included a pick-six and a large field position advantage, so it was a bit of a mirage, similar to Georgia scoring 37 on the Hogs.
Meet the 3-3-5
Leach has decided to get weird on defense. The Air Raid is rarely paired with a good defense, so Leach figured he might as well pair it with something hard to prepare for. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett comes from San Diego State, where the Aztecs were 27th in Defense PAN last season.
Arnett is just 34 years old and arrives as a pupil of longtime New Mexico and San Diego State head coach Rocky Long, arguably the only 3-3-5 coach to see long-term success. The scheme was debuted by Joe Lee Dunn as Memphis DC in 1991. Dunn coordinated defenses at Ole Miss, Arkansas (including the 1995 SEC West title season), and then at Mississippi State. Dunn coordinated the 1998 Bulldog defense that won State its only West title, so the scheme is already beloved by long-time MSU fans. As Smart Football’s Chris Brown notes, Charlie Strong also ran the 3-3-5 early in his tenure as Lou Holtz’s defensive coordinator at South Carolina.
The 3-3-5 is what it sounds like: three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs, which usually includes three safeties: a free safety (or middle safety), plus strong and weakside safeties. You can also use two safeties and a nickelback, as shown in the above image. The weakside linebacker may also play with a hand on the ground to create a 4-2-5 look. The strong and weak safeties are given a lot of freedom to roam and make plays. The 3-3-5 is very aggressive, with a lot of blitzes called. MSU collected seven sacks against LSU.
Note the “tite” alignment of the defensive line, which is supposed to stymie the inside run game and spill everything outside for the safeties.
There were a lot of good plays from the Bulldog defense in this game, but this one is probably my favorite:
Facing a 5-wide set on third down, the Bulldogs put all three linebackers right on the line and act like they will rush six. There are five offensive linemen to block, so someone’s going to have to make a business decision, and LSU QB Myles Brennan needs to get the ball out quickly. But watch the game that defensive end Marquiss Spencer (#42) and strongside linebacker Tyrus Wheat (#2) play on LSU’s left side. With six rushers apparently coming, the LSU left tackle is facing two rushers, and decides to leave Wheat unblocked on the edge and focus on Spencer. Spencer takes a step towards the tackle... then drops into a soft coverage, taking away the stick route that would have been a nice “hot” option for Brennan. The end result is that State rushes just five, drops six, and gets the LSU left tackle to block no one.
The good news for Arkansas is that LSU’s receivers won most of their 1-on-1 matchups with the Bulldog secondary:
That leads us to the 3-3-5’s main vulnerability: big plays in the passing game, which are caused by either aggressive blitzing leaving no safety help, or an established run game, which draws the safeties in and opens up play action. The run game can be established with a good offensive line and patient playcalling, as the lack of size in the box hurts 3-3-5 defenses. The Bulldogs played with fire on Saturday, allowing LSU to post a 52% standard downs success rate and 2.9 line-yards per rush on standard downs, but the Tigers couldn’t quite get enough big plays, and Brennan was awful on passing downs.
Schematically, the Hogs are well-positioned to attack this defense, although I’m not sure the offensive line is good enough to take over yet. As I mentioned in the Georgia preview, the Briles offense tries to establish the inside run game in order to set up the deep passing game. Don’t expect big runs, but if Mississippi State is unable to stop Rakeem Boyd without safety help, then Kendal Briles can unleash the big arm of Feleipe Franks and turn this game into a shootout. If the Hogs suddenly revert to the Chad Morris era and get impatient with trying to run the ball, the Bulldog pass-rush could make this thing go sideways in a hurry.
Keys to the Game
- Bullyball. The rebuild of Arkansas’ offensive line is going to take a couple more years, but here’s a good chance for some early returns. Being unable to run the ball against Georgia is forgivable, but the Hogs have to get some movement on Saturday. The goal isn’t breaking off big runs; it’s forcing the defensive backs to help against the run, thereby setting up the deep passing game that makes the Briles offense hum.
- Limit YAC. The Air Raid is designed to generate yards after catch with throws to laterally-moving receivers plus deep shots. Since the vast majority of passes are caught within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, it bogs down if receivers can’t break tackles. Leach has added some nice stuff to get Kylin Hill into the open field, which adds another element to the Bulldog attack.
- Organic rush. Defensive coordinators found out years ago that bringing multiple blitzers against the Air Raid usually ends in disaster against a competent quarterback. Instead, the Hogs need to generate a straight-up-the-middle pass rush with only four or five rushers. Costello has pretty good pocket awareness, but he’s no threat to run or roll the pocket, so forcing him back could cause mistakes.