STARKVILLE — Mississippi State is spiraling at an alarming rate.
After torching defending national champion LSU for 623 passing yards and 44 points in the season opener in Baton Rouge, the MSU offense has mustered just 21 points in losses to Arkansas, Kentucky and No. 11 Texas A&M.
Following Saturday’s loss to the Aggies, head coach Mike Leach said this is the most his team has ever struggled in picking up his offense. So what is it about Leach’s unit that has seen it fall off a 100,000-foot cliff in less than a month? I dug into Pro Football Focus statistics to find out.
Note: All PFF grades are calculated on a 0-100 scale on the game and season level
Mississippi State’s offensive line is among the nation’s worst
Through four weeks of play, MSU boasts one of the worst offensive lines in America.
According to PFF, the Bulldogs sit 71st of 77 eligible teams in pass blocking this season. Those behind them? Kansas State, East Carolina, North Carolina State, Army, South Alabama and Kansas. That’s it.
While the interior has had its issues, the biggest problems have arisen on the outside.
Former five-star recruit Charles Cross is the highest ranked of MSU’s tackles at No. 171 nationally with a PFF pass blocking grade of 62.1. Opposite Cross, Kwatrivous Johnson sits as the third-worst rated tackle in the entire country (No. 321 of 323) with an overall offensive grade of 33.5 and an even more egregious pass blocking mark of 23.5.
Saturday, the Bulldogs allowed six sacks and five quarterback hurries, while finishing with an average blocking grade of 47.25, their second worst mark of the season.
In all, MSU now sits with an average pass blocking grade of 40.4 through four games. By contrast, Leach’s Washington State squads between 2013 and 2019 never finished with a PFF team pass blocking grade below 81.9 and graded out at 88.3 or better in five of those seven seasons.
“We were literally missing guys standing right in front of us,” Leach said Saturday. “‘Well, I thought he had him?’ Well, he wouldn’t be standing right in front of you if the other guy had him. We’re battling some definite growing pains, and we definitely experienced a bunch of them there.”
K.J. Costello has been historically bad compared to air raid quarterbacks of season’s past
Over Leach’s final seven seasons at Washington State, the Cougars concluded the year with a PFF passing grade below 68 just once. Through four weeks of the 2020 season, MSU’s quarterbacks currently boast a 54.1 passing grade from PFF, 0.3 points below Washington State’s low-water mark over that span.
As noted, a major piece to MSU’s passing struggles arise from the offensive line’s inability to block, leaving Costello and Rogers with an average of 2.59 and 2.64 seconds in the pocket, which ranks No. 112 and 118 in the country, respectively.
That said, Costello’s struggles are among the most prominent in the nation and manifest themselves even further in an offense that passes the ball more than any other.
Despite having completed 130 of 199 pass attempts this fall, the former Stanford signal caller boasts a passer grade of just 55.7 according to PFF, the fifth-worst mark of quarterbacks with a minimum of 100 dropbacks this season. Costello’s total offensive grade of 53.6 also sits as the fourth-lowest of any passer under that same criterion.
Kicking off the campaign with a passing grade of 76.6, Costello has progressively devolved with each coming week. Those numbers bottomed out against the Aggies, when he finished with a total offensive grade of 34.3 and a passer grade of just 36.6 while completing 15 of 22 passes for 99 yards before he was replaced.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to execute in crucial situations,” Costello said after a Week 2 loss to Arkansas. “When it’s third and short, fourth and three (or) when it’s fourth and one, I have to take care of the football, bottom line. It’s that simple. I got to take care of the football, take what the defense gives me and move the ball one play at a time.”
It should also be noted that Rogers’ numbers haven’t been better, though he’s been limited to a small sample size. On 37 snaps this season, the Brandon High School product has averaged an overall offensive grade of 50.7 and a passing grade of 50.4, though those numbers jumped 30.9 and 30.2 against Kentucky to 72 and 71.5 against Texas A&M on Saturday.
“I have had player after player come in as a true freshman, and they can’t even get a play off,” Leach said. “They fumble the snap and everything else. They are usually a nervous wreck. Will has come out and been productive both times.”
Costello and the offensive line have been bad, but the wide receiving corps hasn’t been much better
Let’s be real, anyone who’s watched MSU over the past three weeks knows the offense has been a disaster. And while that stems prominently from Costello and the offensive line’s ineptitude, the receiving corps hasn’t offered a ton of help.
Not a lot was expected from this year’s group as it lost four of its top five pass-catchers from a season ago. But with imports like Alabama transfer Tyrell Shavers, former Under Armour All-American Malik Heath and freshman Jaden Walley coupled with the expected improvement of Osirus Mitchell and JaVonta Payton, among others, MSU anticipated at least a relatively dangerous room.
However, through four games, the Bulldog receiving corps has been mediocre at best. Following a season-high receiving grade of 71.3 in the Week 1 win over LSU, MSU hasn’t eclipsed 57.6 in any of its next three contests. Further troubling, five of MSU’s seven receivers with 16 or more targets have at least one drop this season.
Following Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M, the Bulldogs currently rank as the second-worst-graded receiving team in the Southeastern Conference, ahead of only Auburn, and sit 34th out of the 38 Power Five conference teams that have played this fall. If MSU hopes to dig itself out of its current Grand Canyon-sized offensive rut, the receivers must move up those charts.
“Everyone has to look at themselves in the mirror to see what they can do better,” junior receiver Austin Williams said after the Texas A&M loss. “You can’t dissolve to finger pointing. You have to come together as a team and stay true to what you are. Day by day, just try to
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.