Tampa III: Craig Has The Scout
Who: Mississippi State Bulldogs
When: 11:00 am - January 2nd, 2023
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL
Head Coach: Zach Arnett. Mike Leach's passing will make Mississippi State the rooting favorite. Leach was a revolutionary figure for the football community, with his impact felt across all levels of football. The Leach coaching tree is wide and deep, with variations of his concept across all levels of football. Arnett takes over in a situation similar to that of Bill Lynch at Indiana and Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern. His hiring more closely resembles Fitzgerald as a defensive guy hired to team up with an offensive guru. Arnett is very young and comes out of the Rocky Long defensive tree. Arnett will be spread a little thinner than previously, but has a bowl game and full time title as he learns on the job.
Offensive Style: Pure Air Raid. Mike Leach was the playcaller, and notorious for calling about 7 plays per game. The beauty of the Air Raid was working the routes and concepts to death. Steve Spurrier Jr. will be filling in as OC for the Bulldogs for the bowl game. Spurrier came to Mississippi State with Leach and is familiar with the Air Raid. He spent some time with Mike Stoops at Arizona which ran a version of the Air Raid, and after his dad quit at South Carolina spent a year with Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma. Spurrier is the receivers coach for Mississippi State, which is the position most of the playcallers in the Leach tree spent time.
Defensive Style: 3-3-5 Cover 1/4. Rocky Long invented the 3-3-5 defense. Rocky Long spent time at New Mexico following Gary Patterson's departure for TCU. Long took the 4-2-5 hybrid Patterson was running and tweaked it to the 3-3-5. Arnett started his coaching career at San Diego State under Rocky Long and worked his way up to DC prior to moving to Mississippi State with Leach. Arnett has not named a new DC, so he will presumably be calling plays.
Specialists: The Bulldogs have one of the worst net punting games in the nation, hanging out with the likes of USC, Minnesota and Illinois. They lack a placekicker they can trust, but do have one of the best punt return units in the country (including a return for a TD against Georgia). Their kick returner is an All-American though (Tulu Griffin) and could be the difference in the game.
2022 Mississippi State at a Glance:
2022 Record: 8-4, 4-4
Rushing Offense: 78.8 ypg
Passing Offense: 314.3 ypg
Total Offense: 393.2 ypg
Scoring Offense: 32.7 ppg
Rushing Defense: 143.6 ypg
Pass Defense: 206.8 ypg
Total Defense: 350.3 ypg
Scoring Defense: 24.2 ppg
Turnover Margin: +4
Three Things to Watch
Mississippi State QB hurries. Illinois defensively has run a ton of man coverage. The Air Raid response is Mesh and Crossing routes forcing defenders to chase. This requires some time to develop and an Illini pass rush will help defenders stick with receivers.
Time of Possession. Mississippi State will play with tempo. Illinois runs decent tempo, but will need to slow this game down in order to rest the defense. Illinois will need a 2:1 advantage on ToP to win.
Illinois zone vs. counter runs. Mississippi State's center safety is a hybrid linebacker and typically unaccounted for in blocking schemes. The Illini will need to run zone blocking to help generate yards, but Love and McCray are both better runners out of a gap scheme.
Scouting Review - Offense
More has been written about the Air Raid offense than about any other. A large part of this is due to Mike Leach being more than happy to teach it to anyone who would listen. Leach believed he could run the pure and uncut version of the Air Raid and do it better than anyone else who tried to mimic him. He has mostly been proven correct.
The sharing of details made Mike Leach a different kind of revolutionary. The sharing bread multiple variations (Art Briles and Lincoln Riley both adopted their own versions) which primarily is seen in the high school ranks. The open source playbook allowed every high school in Kentucky, and then Texas to learn from a top notch college coach and run the style. The sudden proliferation of high profile high school passing attacks changed college football forever. That sharing is very rare, it is hard to find a disciple of the Run n Shoot, the Brile Veer and Shoot, or a LaVell Edwards BYU offenses who will share their offensive philosophy and playbook.
The secrecy of the others is what helped birth the Air Raid. Hal Mumme and Mike Leach watch LaVell Edwards offense at BYU in the early 80s and tried to generate their own version. The result was packaging what they saw on film into a stripped down playbook and a set of drills to execute those plays with high efficiency. Mumme was all about the offensive explosion and big numbers, which is why he struggle to win consistently. Leach on the other hand wanted to win, which meant over the course of his career he paired himself with various defensive philosophies but generally with solid defensive schemes. Ruffin McNeil (who first hired Lincoln Riley), Alex Grinch and Zach Arnett were all highly thought of defensive minds prior to being hired by Leach.
The Air Raid offense will feature 4 WR sets pretty exclusively. The formations are either 3x1 or 2x2, and will vary according to what the defense is seeing. I think Leach still used the Early and Late terminology to set the 3x1 side (Early was R, Late was L). The pass plays are then grouped in a series of concepts to exploit man and zone coverages. Teams that have the most success against the Air Raid are able to blend coverages and create confusion in the QBs hard reads. Illinois has not been one of those teams this year, but has blitzed to try and create havoc instead.
Mike Leach loved to claim he never called a run play, and if his team ran one it was a QB audible. The Air Raid is most often paired with inside zone as the run concept (Lincoln Riley has paired it with counter very effectively though). The Mississippi State inside zone is couple as an RPO. The RPO can be added to keep the Sam linebacker from committing to the box.
There are other run plays in the arsenal. They show outside zone and a buck sweep as well. Most of the running is pure inside zone, and the QB has RPOs attached on occasion. This Mississippi State team ran the ball often and successfully. Although they ran the fewest times this season, they were still averaging over 20 rushing attempts per game.
There are five primary passing concepts in Mike Leach's Air Raid. The first and most emulated is the mesh. Added to this is the Y-option. There is also the Shallow Cross, 4-verts and screen concepts. There is also a double slant set of plays with different backside coverages that are prevalent.
The Mesh is probably the most used pass concept in the Leach playbook. The receivers have options on the routes as they begin to cross, if they see zone they will sit quickly and see a quick hit from the QB. Man Coverage will lead to the receivers hitting the high-five or mesh point and rub a defender to open up a receiver
In this case the middle linebacker takes a single step to the left and gave all the space necessary for the crossing route to open up. The beauty of the mesh is running routes deeper than the mesh point and having them open up beautifully as the defense adjusts to the mesh.
Leach loves the skinny post behind this. A recent change is a stop route behind the mesh point in a soft part of the defense. One other advantage of the receivers running completely across the field is it allows the receivers to still find space. Here is an example.
In the Air Raid, the QB has two sets of reads, a quick pre-snap and then the hard read. The hard read sets the half of the field the pass will go. The extended mesh route here though allowed for a checkdown for Rogers.
The next play is the Y-option. For most of the Mike Leach parlance, this would be called the Y-stick.
The receiver here runs 6-7 yards and sticks his foot in the dirt. The HB will run a wheel here to occupy the LB and the outside receiver is working deep to tie up the safety.. The idea is to open the throwing lane. If the Y is covered at the stick, he will run an option route and find space. Here is the same concept in the 3x1 set.
Again, the RB is running to the flat, and the two outside receivers are pulling the safety and corner to the outside. I included the second version of this due to the lackadaisical nature the other receivers ran their routes. This is a Y-stick from the snap and the entire offense telegraphed it. And it still found space.
Leach and the Air Raid are infamous for the 4-verts plays, which originally wreaked havoc on Cover 3 and Tampa 2 defenses in the early days. The concept was used in the Edwards passing scheme, Don Coryell's San Diego Chargers offense, as well as the Run n Shoot. Mississippi State runs this with four option routes for the receivers. All are reading the defensive alignment and adjusting their route based on the defensive coverage.
All routes are open to the receiver. Any receiver has the ability to stop his deep route at 10 yards and turn to look for a pass. Doing this is dependent on what the defense is doing. If the receiver cannot run past the safety or corner by 10 yards, his read becomes a 10-yard stop route, turn, and look for the pass.
Most often the broken route results in a back shoulder throw to the receiver. Mississippi State breaks the route most often against blitzing opponents and man coverage. Illinois should see a lot of this on Monday.
The next concept Mississippi State will run is the Shallow Cross. The Shallow Cross is the primary route coming across the field within a couple of yards of the LOS. The route though uses the West Coast principal of levels. The shallow receiver is eye candy for linebackers which have routes running behind them. If they cheat up on the shallow route it opens throwing lanes to the receivers behind. If the LBs keep depth, the Bulldogs hit the shallow cross.
This is the concept that has the opportunity to create the most turnovers for Mississippi State. Illinois will mix man and zone coverage with their blitz packages and may be dropping an OLB into space the QB would think it open. More likely, the Bulldogs will be looking for routes behind the cross.
The Arkansas LB pulled up on the cross, and the safety pulled up on the inside receiver running the post. This left the corner in single coverage on the deep post and drew the penalty. The throw was Rogers' second read on the play.
The final concept that will be prevalent is the tunnel screen. Every Bulldog game will feature it at least once, and against press man it is an effective way to break an explosive play.
The Bulldogs hit this against man coverage here. Earlier in the game, LSU did a nice job in zone of shutting down the same play. The Bulldogs broke a similar play against Texas A&M as well.
Another series of concept runs in the Air Raid is done with twin slants. The Twin Slants are on one side, with the opposite side running West Coast triangle concepts. This can include Post-Wheel and Fade-Out. The play is a hard QB read pre-snap though. If the concept opposite the slants looks covered, they default to the dual slants on the backside.
The receivers opposite look to be running a Post-Fade combo and cleared out the far side.
The final play I saw of interest and one I would run against a blitzing Illini is the HB jailbreak screen they ran against A&M.
The RB is running an Angle route out of the backfield, and the OL is releasing like a middle screen. Had A&M been blitzing on this play the play ends in six.
Mississippi State this year struggled against teams that consistently generated pressure up front. Alabama did it with blitzes and mixed coverages. Mississippi State will create problems against an Illini secondary missing its top three weapons. The Bulldogs will be able to move the ball on the Illini, and if the Illini front three cannot generate pressure the offense will pick apart the Illini. Underrated person to watch in this game will be the NT for Illinois (mainly Calvin Avery). If the nose can generate pressure, it will create issues for the run game and the passing game will be sped up with pressure in the QBs face.
Scouting Review - Defense
Rocky Long was named Head Coach at New Mexico when Dennis Franchione moved to TCU. Franchione took his DC with him (Gary Patterson) and left the pieces to a hybrid defensive scheme behind. Long took over New Mexico after a stint as the DC at UCLA. Long brought in Bronco Mendenahll as his DC and they created a 3-4 that used some of the Hybrid elements Patterson had installed. New Mexico was not super kind to Long as he turned over his staff and never could get to the next level at New Mexico. Long resigned and joined San Diego State as DC (and replaced by Mike Locksley at New Mexico). It was at San Diego State that Long modified his defense, moving the Nickel Safety into the middle of the field and varying the coverage assignment between deep coverage similar to a Tampa 2 and robber coverage underneath.
The 3 safeties across the back end was revolutionary, and has started to proliferate. Iowa State is considered geniuses for thinking up a concept that replicated. The advantage of the 3-3-5 is it provides all the advantages of Cover 1 and Cover 2 man sets but still has a safety available in run support similar to Cover 4.
Long tinkered with the defense for years at San Diego State, and SP+ would tell you it was very effective. During that time, Long took on Zach Arnett as an assistant and eventually promoted him to DC. Arnett worked with Long through the end of Long's tenure at San Diego State. That offseason was the same season that Mike Leach moved to Starkville, and Leach brought Arnett with him.
Arnett has made a few adjustments to Long's scheme, but the front three would look similar to Illinois fans. The Bulldogs use a nose tackle (who they slant), and two DEs that are lined up on the inside of the offensive tackles. The LBs are not in fixed positions prior to the snap and seem to be in motion. The LBs are two OLBs similar to the Illini model (and will line up at the LOS), and a traditional MLB. The setup allows the LBs to flow downhill in a hurry though.
The Bulldog secondary uses a traditional corners, and two coverage C4 safeties. The two core safeties would be very familiar in a Pat Narduzzi defense. The safeties will move between deep coverage and matching up with slot receivers. Long's tweak was mixing Cover 4 and Cover 1 principles. Arnett brought the scheme with him, the two cover safeties on the hashes that can run Cover 4 with the ability to transition to single high without changing the pre-snap read. The Bulldogs show three deep safetiesat the snap, but will either drop the safeties in deep coverage and drop the 3rd safety drops in underneath coverage. On other plays the third safety drops deep in the Cover 1 (or Tampa 2).
Mississippi State therefore utilizes a scheme that gets the most of the primary defensive camps. The single high look opens up opportunities for exotic blitzes. The fourth rusher comes hard on a blitz, but a safety drops into the coverage gap. The two Cover 4 safeties allow for strong run support. The Bulldogs run a high percentage of man coverage in front of the safeties.
The Bulldogs defensive front does little on the pass rush, so the Bulldogs rely heavily on blitzes to bring pressure and disrupt opposing offenses. The Bulldogs will also utilize all linebackers and the middle safety for blitz packages.
The core defense is this look.
On this play the Bulldogs are blitzing the MLB. The Nose and Tackle are running a twist stunt. The middle safety (#19) actually drops into a Cover 2 on this play. Underneath, the Bulldogs are running man (as seen by the near side safety covering down the sideline).
The primary blitzes used by Mississippi State are from the linebacking corps, and they are frequent. The more interesting blitz packages involve the safety.
In this play, the blitz is coming from the middle safety (#19). The coverage on the back end is Cover 4. The Bulldogs will mix in this blitz especially if the Illini are running the ball. The middle safety is unaccounted for in any run scheme Illinois would be using.
The final look for Mississippi State for the Illini to watch is the zone blitz. The Bulldogs used this to spy on Daniels from LSU.
The backend is single high safety on this play. The coverage was solid and prevented Daniels from finding an open receiver.
Arnett will be playing with six men in the box against the Illini, so it will be imperative for Illinois to hit open receivers on the seams of the defense. The middle safety will be the challenge for Illinois. If Illinois can run to the edges and hit quick slants they will create problems with the Bulldogs coverage. If Mississippi State is able to stop the Illini rushing attack, Illinois will only be able to attack deep on the sidelines which has not been a strength this season.
What does it mean?
On a personal note, this bowl game was something I was excited to see. The Air Raid is a scheme that I have loved reading about over the years, and something that always excited me to watch evolve. Similarly, the Rocky Long defense is a thing of beauty and incredibly challenging to play against as a running football team. It will be something very fun to watch. Listening on the other hand…I hope you enjoy cowbells.
Mississippi State has a few offensive opt outs. Leading receiver RaRa Thomas has entered the transfer portal, as has the 2nd leading rusher Dillon Johnson. The Bulldogs still have a reliable QB and 4 solid WRs. I don't think Illinois has the talent at DB to keep up with the receiving corps the whole game.
The Bulldogs defense is an aggressive scheme that will be selling out to stop the run. That style will require Illinois to grind out tough yards and hit a few homeruns in the passing attack. I'm not sure, without Chase Brown, that Illinois will be able to keep the Bullgos honest all game.
For Illinois to Win:
Teams that beat Mississippi State control the line of scrimmage. LSU stopped them with an aggressive front without blitzing. Georgia did something similar. Alabama blitzed all game and didn't give Rogers time for his receivers to break open. The Illini defensive front will have to generate pressure, something they have struggled with this year.
Offensively, DeVito has to hit the shots along the sidelines this offense will open up. The Bulldogs have been aggressively all season, and against strong run teams they blitz about 60% of the time. If the Illini can freeze the coverage players on the blitzes, gaps will open. The offense has to take advantage of those opportunities to keep the run game moving.
For Mississippi State to Win:
Spurrier and Drew Hollingshead (Inside WR coach) need to communicate well with each other and the team. Leach was the play-caller and on the field. When information needed to be given to the QB about what was done wrong, Leach was on the spot. Spurrier is the press-box coach, so Hollingshead will be relied upon to be the conduit of info to the QB. If they can overcome this challenge, the Bulldogs are talented enough to score on Illinois' youthful secondary.
Defensively, Arnett will be selling out to stop the run and short passing attack. When DeVito and the Illini start taking deep shots, the two play-making safeties need to prevent deep shots down the seams. The corners are good enough to snuff out the outside receiving threats of Illinois downfield.
Couple the above with an a+ return game and Mississippi State should dominate field position. The only way to void the advantage is with bad interceptions.
Illinois lost two important components on the defensive side of the ball, and then Brown and Witherspoon both opted out. The loss of Walters and Kane will put Illinois at an experience disadvantage as Henry is DC but has not called a game before. The one saving grace is that Mississippi State also is lacking a playcaller on offense who has called a game before. The Air Raid though allows teams to move the ball and will score on the Illini.
The Bulldog defense though is stout and will be focused on stopping the run. The Illini will struggle to break enough plays to keep up with the Bulldogs scoring and Mississippi State will win this by double digits.
Craig YTD Against the Spread: