Georgia defense braces for Mike Leach’s ‘Air Raid’

ATHENS -- When Mississippi State hired Mike Leach in January, excitement and trepidation swept across the SEC. This meant that the famed “Air Raid” offense was coming south, not to mention the quirky, eccentric humor of the coach/architect known as “The Pirate.”

The nervous tension only mounted after the Bulldogs went to Baton Rouge and won their opener over defending national champion LSU 44-34.

Uh-oh, the rest of the league was thinking.

Then the next four games happened. Notably starting with an Oct. 3 home game against Arkansas in Starkville, Mississippi State’s Air Raid was grounded to the tune of four consecutive defeats by the combined score of 114-30.

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Leach’s Bulldogs (2-4) have rebounded with a 24-17 win over Vanderbilt, but that hasn’t exactly put fear back in the hearts of Mississippi State’s remaining opponents. The next of those is No. 13 Georgia (4-2), which plays host to the Maroon Dogs on Saturday night at Sanford Stadium (7:30 p.m., SEC Network).

But while the Bulldogs are not likely trembling over their task on Dooley Field on Saturday, they’re also going in with a healthy respect for what they might see. Kirby Smart had an interesting way of explaining that.

“Coach Leach has a very different style of offense than what we typically see week to week in the SEC,” he said. “It’s kind of a different type of defending to defend these guys.”

Basically, what Leach tries to do is flood the defensive secondary with receivers and have a quarterback at the controls that can quickly identify either one that’s open or has drawn one-on-one coverage. The problem he has run into in the SEC is he’s often getting neither.

“What everybody’s doing is rushing three, dropping eight,” said Georgia Hall of Famer Matt Stinchcomb, an analyst for the SEC Network who called Mississippi State’s last game. “Arkansas was the first group to, quote-end quote, crack the code as far as this Mississippi State bunch. I don’t think Barry (Odom, Arkansas defensive coordinator) invented the strategy, but he was certainly the first one to get to it this year. And, basically, that’s to use more space players than line-of-scrimmage players and add and subtract as needed.”

That’s where LSU went wrong. Notoriously allegiant to man coverage, the Tigers insisted on covering Mississippi State’s receivers one-on-one. Most of the time they did OK. But much too regularly they gave up an explosive play over the top.

What Arkansas did and LSU didn’t do was attempt to control the line of scrimmage with only three players, which they were able to do. That allowed them to drop eight, including two linebackers, into coverage. The rules of football assure that no more than five players are eligible to catch passes, the numbers favored the defense.

Georgia likely will employ a similar strategy. But here it’s important to point out that the Bulldogs’ defense probably is not creating the dread in offensive coordinators that it once did. Georgia already has given up 40 points each in losses to Alabama and Florida and haven’t been quite as stifling as a year ago, even in the games they’ve won.

There are good reasons for that, of course. Not only were the Bulldogs facing great teams in those two contests, but they also were facing incredible quarterbacks. Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask may, in fact, end up 1-2 in this year’s Heisman Trophy race, in either order.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s defense was notably short-handed against the Gators. It will still be for Saturday’s game, too, but not quite to the extent it was in Jacksonville.

On the other hand, what the Bulldogs will face Saturday won’t in any way resemble what they encountered in those other two contests.

The Maroon Dogs are reeling at the moment, and struggles go well beyond just their offensive strategy. They’ve been plagued with opt-outs, mostly notably All-SEC running back Kylin Hill, and likely will start a freshman at quarterback on Saturday. Mississippi State has gone lately with freshman Will Rogers, who Leach recruited to Starkville specifically to run his system. Stanford transfer K.J. Costello started the first five games, but Rogers started the last. Together they’re completing 67 percent of their passes for 1,819 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

But, as Smart points out, Mississippi State isn’t remaining static. Leach’s history with the Air Raid dates to his days as Hal Mumme’s offensive coordinator at Kentucky. He knows the numbers theory better than most. For every zig there is a zag, and every move a counter move.

This is what is keeps Smart and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning up at night.

“You’ve got to pitch to these guys,” Smart said. “Nobody hardly rushes the passer now; they rush three. The last five or six teams have rushed three 80 percent of the snaps. That’s not necessarily what we’re going to do. We believe in rushing 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero. I mean, I want coach Leach to know we may bring seven, we may bring three. … But I can assure you, whatever you do, he’s got answers. This is not his first rodeo.”

As is usually the case, the pressure of solving the Air Raid falls primarily on the inside linebackers, who must quickly determine rush versus pass while also keeping tabs on the running backs as receivers. As most Georgia fans are painfully aware, the Bulldogs have been particularly vulnerable this season to pass-catching backs on wheel routes, slip-screens and flares. That issue has been exacerbated by a foot injury that senior Monty Rice has played with all season.

Georgia knows it will be in for more of the same Saturday. And, with an extra week to prepare, it also can expect something different.

“It’s something that I personally haven’t seen, and I don’t think the SEC has really seen either,” Bulldogs linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “I feel like we’ve got to play it differently. We’ve been watching film and going at it hard and buying into the coaches’ game plan. I feel like if we do that, we’ll be all right.”

That Mississippi State hasn’t had great success under Leach so far is not an indictment as to its future. The Maroons come to Athens having dealt with 12 opt-outs so far, including a few more this week. Add that to Leach not yet having recruited to his style and the weekly uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and the struggles are understandable.

“The biggest thing is distractions, not being able to work together in the spring, losing players because of the standard we have,” Leach said on the SEC coaches teleconference call Wednesday. “I think that you brace yourself for the ripple effect that it takes to play each week, but it is constant. … But playing football is one of the most exciting things we can do, and I think the players are excited about that.”

Smart, of course, expects to get Mississippi State’s best, with a few new wrinkles to boot.

“I think they are changing, too,” Georgia’s coach said. “They are re-creating their identity throughout the SEC as he goes along. He’s changed some throughout the year.”

Said Stinchcomb of Leach’s Air Raid: “None of it’s new; it’s all been around forever. But, you emphasize it and practice it and build an entire philosophy around it and recruit to it, it can be pretty good.”

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