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Mississippi State's Mike Leach sends warning shot to rest of SEC in debut

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

Mike Leach has long established himself as the definitive maestro of resuscitating the football forlorn. He’ll roll into your remote college town, inject life into your pedestrian football program and, eventually, pull an outlier into the football mainstream.

Throughout a 19-year head coaching career at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State that’s remained obsessively devoted to the Air Raid, magic moments inevitably pop up along the way.

We all remember the Michael Crabtree game in Lubbock in 2008 when Texas Tech upset No. 1 Texas. We got hypnotized by Minshew Magic in Pullman in 2018, an 11-win experience of defying conventions and expectations. When Leach arrives as a head coach in your town, the same enduring traits follow – yards, points and – most importantly – hope.

On a sun-splashed Saturday in Baton Rouge, Leach turbo-charged the wizardry that’s made him this generation’s best bad-job coach. In his Mississippi State debut, he added to his lexicon a game that will long reverberate in Leach lore – and Mississippi State lore, too.

Mississippi State didn’t just euthanize the defense of defending champion LSU, 44-34, on Saturday. It did it in such a quintessential Leach fashion that it could have been drawn up on Leach’s famously short call sheet.

Stanford transfer K.J. Costello passed for 623 yards in his Mississippi State debut – breaking the SEC and Tiger Stadium records in the process and marking the 11th-most prolific performance in FBS history. And it was exactly what we’ve come to expect from Leach – quick crossing patterns, vertical routes when available and green acres appearing around pass catchers. The 60-minute emasculation of LSU’s soul and identity in the wake of its national title offered a distilled lesson in the chaos Leach’s offense can wreak.

Mike Leach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs looks on as his team takes on the LSU Tigers on Saturday. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Mike Leach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs looks on as his team takes on the LSU Tigers on Saturday. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Mississippi State threw the ball 60 times, ran it just 16 times and finished with nine yards on the ground. That 623 of the 632 yards were in the air typifies Leach, whose Washington State teams in 2019 passed the ball 78 percent of the time, nearly 14 percent more often than No. 2 San Jose State. So while passing 60 of 76 times may appear extreme, it’s actually below average for Leach.

Leach’s postgame remarks were classic, as he called the win “better than average.” He joked there were a “lot of ghosts” in Tiger Stadium, and he made sure he left a few behind.

He put a banana in the tailpipe of the joyride of LSU coach Ed Orgeron, whose team lost 17 starters off the national title team from the previous season. Fresh off the championship tour, book release about his career rebirth and a fawning “60 Minutes” profile, Orgeron quickly backslid to reality. Nick Saban has ruled the SEC by adjusting and adapting through change. With two new LSU coordinators and Joe Burrow slinging the ball in Cincinnati, Orgeron looked like a coach with few answers on Saturday.

LSU was without star corner Derek Stingley Jr., who is one of the five best players in college football. But Leach pointed out postgame that LSU’s corners played so tight to the line that he couldn’t help just keep passing over them – again and again. Leach’s offense is predicated on taking what the defense gives, and he’ll gladly take vertical green space if offered generously.

Leach comes to the SEC with a track record of being unimpressed with the SEC’s self-importance. He told The Clarion-Ledger back in 2017, “Your level isn’t special.”

He and Hal Mumme torched SEC defenses when Leach was the coordinator at Kentucky in 1997-98, and Leach didn’t see why the offense wouldn’t work this time around. Just because the SEC has a TV network and a higher opinion of itself these days doesn’t make the league any better equipped to stop an offense.

From the FOX studios, Urban Meyer admitted chuckling to himself watching Leach thrive on his new stage. When Meyer arrived in the SEC in 2005, a hailstorm of criticism followed that his new-age spread offense wouldn’t work in the smash-mouth league. “The first four or five games I was ready to believe them,” Meyer said by phone on Saturday night.

Meyer spent the week studying Leach, who he considers a good friend, and said he became “mesmerized” by the offense. He’d seen Leach long enough to know he’d have success, but even he was surprised at Mississippi State marching up and down the field with little opposition. Don’t forget, the Bulldogs turned the ball over four times and still scored 44 points.

When asked if he could have seen this caliber of success, Meyer laughed. “Not against LSU,” Meyer said. “What are you talking about? I know they lost a lot, but you are still talking about some of the best athletes in the country.”

Leach is not perfect, which is why he’s niched himself at places that need to take risks. His racial insensitivity by posting a cartoon with a noose on it offered Mississippi State fans a quick reminder that Leach tends to invoke controversy. Controversy is why he got run out of Texas Tech. That’s why he didn’t work in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. And that’s why he’s in Starkville instead of South Beach or Los Angeles or Austin, the caliber of job he’s deserved with his history of winning.

At 59, Leach is in familiar trappings at a traditional have-not in search of an equalizer. He’s here because Dan Mullen gave Mississippi State fans a taste of playoff contention, top-10 rankings and SEC competitiveness. AD John Cohen took a risk firing Joe Moorhead this winter after just two seasons, both of which would have been considered illustrious considering the overall arc of State’s dim football history.

Cohen needed a home run. But even his boldest dreams couldn’t have envisioned a debut like this.

The yards, attention and success have come a bit quicker than Leach is accustomed to experiencing. But after 19 years of remarkably similar methods and results, we shouldn’t still be surprised by Leach championing an underdog program to an axis-shifting victory.

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