STARKVILLE — Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn have spent the better part of two decades on the forefront of college football’s offensive explosion.
In varying stops from Valdosta State to Texas Tech, Leach brought the air raid into the mainstream, while Malzahn brought his wide-open spread attack from the high school ranks to staffs at Arkansas, Tulsa and, later, Auburn.
Saturday, Leach and Malzahn will meet on the field for just the second time as head coaches after Auburn downed Washington State in 2013. But as compelling as that lone contest is a look back at the 2007 season — one in which Leach’s Texas Tech team and a Tulsa squad for which Malzahn served as the offensive coordinator finished No. 1 and No. 2 in yards per game nationally with contrasting styles of offense.
“It was just fast and furious,” longtime Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship told The Dispatch of Malzahn’s system, “and it was just a great time to be there.”
* * *
A high school coach by trade, Malzahn spent 15 years coaching prep football in Arkansas before earning his first college shot with the Razorbacks in 2006. One year later, he was tabbed the offensive coordinator at Tulsa under current Hawaii head coach Todd Graham.
Then in his first year at Tulsa as the wide receivers coach after a long high school coaching career in his own right, Blankenship said Malzahn’s system was exciting, fast and unique. It keyed in on spreading the field and taking advantage of matchups. But unlike offenses of the decade prior, Malzahn’s incorporated hosts of other playbooks like misdirections, counters and even pieces of the triple option to boost the rushing attack — an schematic adjustment that helped Tarrion Adams rush for over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns during the 2007 season.
“I thought we were pretty wide open when I was at Union High School,” Blakenship said. “But nothing compared to what Gus did. That was a gamechanger to experience the speed and the way he set up the offense.”
But Malzahn’s offense was not simply predicated on the run game. Instead, it relied heavily on veteran quarterback Paul Smith to bring about balance. A legend in Oklahoma prep circles, Smith left Owasso High School as the state’s all-time leading passer as he compiled more than 9,500 yards through the air. Upon Malzahn’s arrival at Tulsa, Smith was entering his fifth year in the program and ranked sixth on the school’s single-season passing charts the season prior.
“I tell you what, Paul Smith was returning, and there were not very many returners,” Malzahn said Wednesday.
For what Smith had accomplished prior to the new regime, his video game-like numbers during his final season at Tulsa carried him to a brief professional football career and a 10-win season in 2007. Under Malzahn’s guidance, he nearly doubled his passing output from the season before, finishing the year with 5,065 yards and 47 touchdowns — 13 of which went to receiver Trae Johnson.
“I try to explain it this way: If you took any one of those plays, they were found in every other people’s offense,” Blankenship said. “It was just the method of presenting them. Gus had been running this offense — the passing part of it — for several years, and he just had answers. He knew if the defense did this, then now this will be open.”
* * *
While Smith’s passing marks were impressive, they finished second nationally in 2007. The one player who compiled more aerial yardage? Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell.
Then in his eighth season in Lubbock, Leach was still a year away from his famed win over No. 1 Texas, but the Red Raiders were loaded offensively. Harrell arrived in Lubbock as a four-star passer who’d been, for the most part, passed up by the major schools in the state. During his first season as the full-time starter in 2006, he finished the season No. 3 nationally in passing yardage behind Hawaii’s Colt Brennan and New Mexico State’s Chase Holbrook — then under the direction of Leach’s mentor, Hal Mumme.
At receiver, current Detroit Lion Danny Amendola gave Harrell one half of a dynamic pair on the outside. The other half was converted high school quarterback Michael Crabtree.
“Everybody kind of knew their role and knew what they were doing,” Leach said Wednesday. “… It was a tough, highly focused team.”
Running what Mumme refers to as the purest form of the air raid offense, Leach’s scheme passed on 77 percent of plays in 2007, while its leading rusher, Shannon Woods, compiled just 439 yards on 84 carries. Despite that, the Red Raiders averaged 529.6 yards, 26 first downs and 77.6 plays per game.
For Harrell and Crabtree, the 2007 campaign served as a springboard for the successes of the following year. The Red Raiders rolled through the first half of their slate, the lone loss coming in a 49-45 shootout at Oklahoma State, as they averaged 50 points per game over the first seven contests.
Texas Tech took its lumps in lopsided losses to Texas and Missouri in the back half of the schedule, though the season was buoyed with wins over No. 3 Oklahoma and a 31-28 victory over No. 21 Virginia in the Gator Bowl.
By year’s end, Harrell led the nation in passing yards, pass attempts, completions and passing touchdowns. Those he beat out in each respective category included Heisman Trophy winners Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford, longtime NFL quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Chase Daniel, Brennan — who finished his career as the third-highest grossing passer in college football history — and Smith.
“Leach might pull a prank on you or try to dump a water bottle on you or tell you some crazy story, or something like that that has nothing to do with football, but I think a lot of (the success) just had to do with, hey, let’s be loose, let’s go have fun, and that’s when we’ll have our best chance to be successful,” Harrell told The Dispatch in September. “That’s how I’d describe our time there and that era of Texas Tech football.”
* * *
Saturday, Malzahn, now in his eighth year on The Plains, brings a similarly styled offense to what he ran at Tulsa to face off against Leach’s high-flying air raid attack that’s been more reminiscent of a tugboat than a jet plane in his first year at MSU.
“I think it’s a good offense, I think they do some good stuff with it,” Leach said in reference to Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ system. “They try to keep you off balance and try to get the ball in other people’s hands.”
In the 13 years since the pair saw their respective teams finish No. 1 and No. 2 in average yardage per game nationally, Malzahn and Leach have combined for a 217-134 head coaching record, while the former came seconds away from winning the 2014 national championship.
Having endured their share of criticism in 2020, MSU and Auburn enter this year’s meeting ranked 101st and 69th in the country in total offense. But if either coach’s track record says anything, it’s that the respective programs have offensive innovators with a history of success at their helms.
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.