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Alabama at Mississippi State Preview: When the Bulldogs have the ball

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The Air Raid is coming back for Round 2... Can the Tide defense shut it down like they did in 2020?

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Texas A&M Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now squarely into year 2 of the Mike Leach Experience in Starkville, and, as many projected, the (in)famous Air Raid offense has looked a decent bit sharper with a season of experience for the Bulldogs.

Not a lot sharper, mind you, but there’s obviously more buy-in to the system than there was a year ago.

The Bulldogs are averaging 28 points per game and have been very consistent around that number. In five games, they scored 35, 24, 29, 25, and 26, with those games coming against a mix of solid teams across the SEC, ACC, and a couple of good G5 opponents.

For as much as Leach has defined the Air Raid offense and been the subject of conversation over the past two decades, this scheme really is not particularly complicated or intricate. Get in the shotgun, put 4 receivers on the field, have them all run quick crossers and outs, and get the ball out quick.

That gets layered in with a hearty dosing of WR screens and RB screens in different forms and fashions in lieu of a running game, and the occasional calculated and pre-planned 50-50 sideline shot.

Wash, rinse, repeat, for about 50 pass attempts per game.

Well, 57, to be exact. Second year starter Will Rogers is completing 76% of his 284 targets through the first 5 games of this season, and has 14 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions. Of course, again, the quick passing game acts as a proxy rushing game for the Bulldogs, so while his completion % is inflated, his yards/attempt is fairly low at 6.6.

Even more interesting is that his yards per completion is 8.66. For reference, Bryce Young is at 12.7 yards per completion, and we’ve all been grumbling a bit about Alabama’s lack of deep passes this year. (Mac Jones was at 14.5 yards per completion last year... Ridiculous).

Rogers is a solid QB, though. He’s got a quick release and good enough arm to make pretty much any throw on the field under 30 yards, and actually shows a nice touch on sideline fades and lobs. He’s got a good feel for the pocket, and while he rarely takes off running, he’s got decent enough wheels to pick up some yards here and there. That, combined with his quick release, makes depending on sacks a futile strategy for the defense.

At running back, the diminutive Jo’quavious Marks returns for his sophomore season. He’s short, but is very stout and quick in small spaces. Marks was a bright spot for the Bulldogs in a rough season last year and gave the Alabama defenders some issues, and he leads the team in touches with 40 rushes and 38 catches.

Marks also splits time with the bigger Dillon Johnson, who actually has more yards on 18 less touches. The two often work on the field at the same time in split backs formations, and have combined for 700 total yards and 5 touchdowns.

At wide receiver, there’s almost too many to keep up with. Cal transfer Makai Polk leads the team with 46 catches, 430 yards, and 4 touchdowns, and ever reliable 5th year senior Austin Williams has 249 yards. From the slot, Jayden Walley has 19 catches for 202 yards, but has been a TD machine, catching four scores so far. Washington State transfer Jamire Calvin and senior Malik Heath have also been in on the action quite often.

For the most part, all of these guys are around the 6’3” mark, with their primary attributes being to #1 secure the catch, and #2 get a couple yards afterwards.

Playing the Air Raid offense is always unique. You’re not going to win the game with a pass rush. The entire scheme is built upon neutralizing that aspect of a defense. Instead, a defense has to be content with allowing all the 3-4 yard passes that Rogers wants to throw, then quickly making tackles before they turn into actual drive-extending runs.

Last year, Alabama went into a pure dime defense that allowed Brian Branch and Malachi Moore cause as much havoc as possible in the short flats, and that strategy totally shut down the Bulldog offense.

Of course, they’re more experienced in the scheme now and are better than they were in 2020... But it’s still the same scheme, so I expect Alabama to go with the same strategy unless Mike Leach decides to actually change things up.

Conceptually, it’s not a hard scheme to defend. But it will test the Alabama secondary in their play-to-play dedication to making good, solid tackles over and over and over again.

I don’t think the Tide defense will do much better or worse than A&M or Memphis did, and so I think we can expect 24-28 points from the Bulldogs.