Mike Leach has a different idea of run-pass balance than most college football coaches have.
“I’ve actually thought about running it virtually 100 percent of the time one game, throwing it 100 percent the next game,” the Mississippi State coach said Monday. “With my luck, some punter will drop the damn ball, and it will count as a rush. Then we’ll brag about how balanced we are. We’re going to tell everybody, ‘We’re balanced.’
“There’s nothing balanced about that,” Leach added. “Balance has to do with production by position.”
If that is the goal, the Bulldogs came closer to it than ever in Saturday’s 31-17 win over No. 12 Kentucky.
Mississippi State ran the ball for 94 yards on 35 carries (including two sacks), tied for the most attempts by a Leach-coached team since Washington State had 40 carries in a win over Oregon on Oct. 1, 2016. And of quarterback Will Rogers’ 39 pass attempts, four running backs — Jo’quavious Marks, Dillon Johnson, Omni Wells and J.J. Jernighan — were targeted a total of 16 times.
“Our running back position, when you add on the ground and in the air, is pretty high, and I think it will remain that way,” Leach said.
Mississippi State had only one game with more than 25 carries this year — Sept. 25 against LSU (26 attempts). Last season, 30 carries against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl was a season high.
The Bulldogs remain last in rushing offense at 54.4 yards per game, 18.1 yards per game behind Nevada, the next closest team. Of course, they also have 28 fewer carries than any other team in FBS football.
Bulldogs big on third down
Mississippi State hasn’t faced third down all that much on offense.
With 110 attempts, the Bulldogs are tied for 74th in the country, a bit below the midway point. But they’re among the best teams at converting their third-down opportunities.
MSU has converted 53 third downs for a rate of 48.2 percent, which ranks 13th in FBS football. Among Southeastern Conference teams, only Alabama (No. 1) and Missouri (No. 12) are ahead.
The Bulldogs have made a considerable improvement of nearly 50 percent from last year’s conversion rate of 32.5 percent (51 for 157). In 2020, MSU ranked No. 115 in the country.
“It has definitely been beneficial,” Leach said. “I didn’t realize that it was that (much) because I guess I didn’t feel like we started the season particularly good on third downs.”
Mississippi State went 5 for 21 on third down in its first two games against Louisiana Tech and North Carolina State but was 9 of 17 against Memphis and 12 of 18 against LSU. The Bulldogs went 11 for 16 against Vanderbilt and 7 of 12 against Kentucky.
Leach’s teams at Washington State made a similar — if less sizable — jump from his first season to his second. The Cougars ranked No. 119 in the nation in third-down conversion rate in 2012 but No. 62 a year later.
“If you keep moving the sticks, then you get the ball,” Leach said. “It’s a little like lottery tickets. The more plays you have with the ball, the more chances you have to score. We try to do that.”
Leach: Pressure leading to interceptions
Leach called an interception on a pass tipped by Tyrus Wheat and picked off by Cameron Young the “turning point” in the Bulldogs’ win over the Wildcats.
It’s nothing new for MSU.
Mississippi State intercepted Kentucky quarterback Will Levis three times and now owns 10 interceptions this season, tied for 14th in FBS. Only seven teams have more than 11, with Iowa well ahead of the field at 16.
Emmanuel Forbes leads the Bulldogs with three picks, Green and Fred Peters have two, and Young, Wheat and Preston have one apiece.
Leach said Mississippi State’s high number of interceptions is a factor of the Bulldogs’ often effective pass rush. MSU had no sacks Saturday but still got pressure on Levis.
“I think, and we try to get better at it, when our defensive line affects the quarterback that helps generate that,” Leach said.
The Bulldogs haven’t been able to turn many of their picks into yards, but that’s more a factor of where each ball was caught. Four of the 10 interceptions were inside the 5-yard line or in the end zone; MSU’s longest return was 21 yards by Forbes.
Sixty-seven FBS teams have a pick-six, but Mississippi State isn’t one of them. The Bulldogs’ 51 yards off their 10 interceptions ranks 88th in the country; only Vanderbilt (10 INT, 25 yards) has fewer yards off its picks among teams with 10 or more this season.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.