Tuesday, COVID-19 permitting, the Texas Tech football team will return to the postseason for the first time since 2017, when the Red Raiders lost the Birmingham Bowl to South Florida. And while this year’s Auto Zone Liberty Bowl means little in terms of prestige or titles, the fact that Tech is set to face former Red Raider head coach Mike Leach gives this matchup some real juice.
These two programs have met seven times with the Bulldogs holding a 4-2-1 lead. However, all these meetings took place between 1953 and 1970, so it is difficult to draw conclusions from the history of this series.
On the year, Mississippi State is 7–5 with a 4–4 mark in SEC play, which was good for fourth in the stalwart 7-team SEC West. It was a step forward for Leach after his team struggled to a 4-7 record in 2020, the Pirate’s first year in charge at Starkville.
But while many Tech fans enjoy following Leach’s career from a distance, most don’t know much about the Bulldogs, as they are a program that rarely enters Texas Tech’s orbit. So let’s take a look at the Bulldogs as we prepare for Tuesday’s Auto Zone Liberty Bowl.
They have ups and downs this year.
As is the case with most 7-5 teams, Mississippi State has been a little Jekyll and Hyde this season. This makes it hard to figure out how good they are.
On the positive side, one needs to look at Mississippi State’s wins over No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 12 Kentucky and No. 17 Auburn (with the A&M and Auburn games coming up the road) and be quite impressed. In those three games, the Bulldogs proved they can beat top-level competition.
But on the other hand, Leach’s squad also had some tough times. This included a 31-29 loss to Memphis that saw the Dogs surrender 17 points in the final quarter.
Of course, Mississippi State fans must still be worried about a game-ending punt that Mississippi State appeared to have knocked down only for Memphis to catch it and return it 94 yards for the TD, despite the back judge signaling for the clock is stopped. . That move proved to be a huge turning point in a wild and controversial game.
The Bulldogs also lost a game to a mediocre LSU team (who would finish the year 6–6), 28–25, at home. That day, MSU had two turnovers inside LSU’s 30-yard line to squander a golden opportunity to defeat their hated conference foe.
So it’s fair to question which Mississippi State team will show up in Memphis. Hopefully it will be the one that played in Memphis earlier this year and not the one that took down several quality SEC opponents.
They have a strong defense
Fairly or unfairly, Mike Leach has earned a reputation for not emphasizing defense enough throughout his career. However, this year’s Mississippi State team has one of the best statistical defenses in the country.
Overall, MSU ranks 21st in the NCAA in total defense, giving up just 330.8 yards per game. That was good for 4th best in the SEC.
Against the run is where the Bulldogs shine. At just 100.8 yards per game on the ground, Mississippi State is 10th in the nation and 3rd in its conference.
But against the pass, the Dogs aren’t much worse. Giving up 230.1 yards per game, they rank 68th nationally (but only 9th in the SEC). Fortunately for the Red Raiders though, MSU will be without their top corner, Martin Emerson, who opted out of this bowling game.
Still, Tech will have to deal with a pair of disruptive linebackers in this game. Tyrus Wheat, 6-foot-1 and 250 pounds, has racked up an impressive seven sacks this year, as well as being credited with 45 tackles. Meanwhile, 6-foot-1, 250-pound Nathaniel Watson has four sacks among his 77 tackles.
So while any Mike Leach team is known for its offensive prowess, don’t sleep on MSU’s defense because it’s a group that can play solid football. And that’s not good news for a Texas Tech offense that struggled late in the regular season against solid defenses at Oklahoma State and Baylor.
QB Will Rogers is as accurate as it gets
Surprise surprise. Mike Leach has another star QB on his hands. This is nothing new for Texas Tech football fans.
But what people in Texas might not know is how good MSU’s signal caller Will Rogers is. In fact, he’s putting up numbers to rival Leach’s former protégés Gardner Minshew and Graham Harrell.
Overall, he completed a ridiculous 75.1% of his passes. But he’s not just a dink-dunk passer because he averages a respectable 7.1 yards per attempt. In comparison, in his best season as a Red Raider, Harrell completed 71.8% of his passes averaging 8.0 yards per attempt.
Already this year, Rogers has had four games of more than 400 passing yards and four more of at least 370. And what’s more, he doesn’t turn the ball over very often, as he only has eight interceptions a year while throwing 35 TDs.
So don’t blame Rogers and Leach if they’re licking their chops to tackle Tech’s pass defense. The Red Raiders are only 118th out of 130 teams in yards allowed, as they give up 266.4 per game. So Tech will have to find something new in its defensive approach if it wants to slow down one of the SEC’s most dangerous passers.