Mississippi State upsets defending national champion LSU in Mike Leach's SEC head-coaching debut

Sam Cooper
·5 min read

It would have been completely unrealistic to believe that LSU would just pick up where it left off after winning the national championship last year.

After all, so many of the faces that made that LSU team one of the best college football teams ever have moved on. If you’re Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow and his 13 draft-pick teammates, you moved on to the NFL. Or if you’re offensive assistant wunderkind Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, you moved on to bigger coaching jobs.

What was left behind was on display on Saturday in the season opener against Mississippi State. Let’s just say the results were mixed.

In Mike Leach’s debut as an SEC head coach, Mississippi State upset the sixth-ranked Tigers, 44-34, in Baton Rouge. It marked the first time a defending national champion lost its opener since 1998, when Michigan lost 36-20 to Notre Dame.

The Bulldogs, running Leach’s famous Air Raid scheme, put up a whopping 632 yards of offense on an LSU defense full of new faces. K.J. Costello, MSU’s prized graduate transfer quarterback from Stanford, made some rough mistakes in the fourth quarter but emerged with an SEC single-game record of 623 passing yards.

Not bad for a debut.

Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello (3) passes in the first half an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello (3) passes in the first half an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Speaking of debuts, Myles Brennan’s first start for LSU after the departure of Burrow was an up-and-down affair. He threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, but often was late with his decisions — especially in the first half. He looked overwhelmed by pressure from the MSU front, and did not have the fluidity to elude that pressure like Burrow did throughout the 2019 season.

Brennan seemed to have his best chemistry with Terrace Marshall Jr. Their 33-yard scoring connection cut Mississippi State’s lead to 34-31 with 11:01 to play. And after LSU’s defense forced a Costello fumble, a field goal tied the game at 34-34 a little more than a minute later.

From there, though, Costello took control.

First, he led a field goal drive that put the Bulldogs back ahead, 37-34, with 7:27 to play. And after the defense forced a three-and-out from LSU, Costello methodically picked apart the depleted LSU secondary (playing without star Derek Stingley Jr., who was hospitalized with a non-COVID-19 illness) like he had all afternoon.

On third-and-9 from the LSU 24 — with the Tigers defense desperately needing a stop — Costello lofted in a beautiful 24-yard touchdown pass to Osirus Mitchell down the right sideline to put the game out of reach.

It was the fifth touchdown pass of the afternoon for Costello, the throw that put him over 600 yards for the afternoon and the score that officially spelled the end of LSU’s 16-game winning streak.

What does this mean for LSU?

Well, it won’t look quite as easy as it did in 2019. The 2019 Tigers were a well-oiled machine, especially on offense. The defense was full of experienced players that got better and better as the season progressed.

Entering 2020, Ed Orgeron’s group did not have the benefit of any non-conference games to work out the kinks. It was gung-ho SEC football right from the jump, and having to deal with Leach’s Air Raid in your opener is no easy task.

Still, you would expect the Tigers to be better. You would expect better protection from the offensive line. You would expect better secondary play, even without Stingley. You would expect Brennan, after three seasons as LSU’s No. 2 quarterback, to be able to rise to the occasion in his first career start.

But they couldn’t. And that’s a tough way to start off your reign as the defending national champions. There is at least one positive, though. Vanderbilt is next on the schedule.

What does this mean for Mississippi State?

Mississippi State fans could not have asked for a better debut from Leach. Anybody who has followed the sport knows what his offense brings – passing, passing and more passing. He did it at Texas Tech. He did it at Washington State. And now he’s bringing the Air Raid to the SEC.

So far, so good.

Mississippi State threw the ball 60 times and ran it just 10 times. You would think that would be a tough way to use all-SEC caliber running back Kylin Hill, who had just seven carries for 34 yards. But Leach found a way to get him involved. Costello often found Hill uncovered out the backfield, and he finished the game with eight catches for 158 yards, including a 75-yard third-quarter touchdown that put the Bulldogs ahead 27-24.

Hill was one of three MSU players with more than 100 yards receiving. Mitchell led the way, hauling in seven passes for 183 yards and two scores. Javonta Payton pitched in six catches for 122 yards while Tyrell Shavers and Austin Williams each added touchdown catches.

On the other side of the ball, MSU’s ability to get pressure on Brennan was an encouraging sign. The Bulldogs’ defensive line finished the afternoon with seven sacks and was responsible for several missed throws from Brennan, including getting a hand on Brennan’s elbow on his late-third quarter interception.

MSU may not be a legitimate SEC West contender, but it’s going to be a team nobody wants to play.

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