Scooter Hobbs column: Bulldogs change identity

Published 11:00 am Friday, September 15, 2023

It’s pretty confusing trying to figure out Mississippi State these days, but I’m pretty sure the answer is not “More Cowbell.”

That’s been done to Kocsiusko and back, with little benefit to decent society.

But explain, please, where did these 2023 Bulldogs come from?

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Nothing about them seems right as the Bulldogs await LSU’s appearance Saturday at the bewitching 11 a.m. hour to open Southeastern Conference play.

You know the deal.

Mississippi State, and most assuredly the rest of the SEC, lost its iconic pirate and most entertainingly glib coach last December with the unexpected passing of Mike Leach.

Football fans everywhere miss him, of course. Leach was the coach even bitter rivals had trouble working up a good hate-on for.

But Mississippi State still wanted to play football and needed a coach.

So, not surprising given the tragic circumstances, MSU hired from within. Perfectly reasonable. It seemed important to keep the staff together, let shocked players at least find familiar faces around the football ops building.

The question is, how in the world was new coach Zach Arnett available from within? i.e., he had been on the same staff, and presumably hired by, an offensive cut-up like Leach.

Leach had his nutty Air Raid offense, and by golly he was going to have fun with it every game. It’s an acquired taste, for sure, dead-square against most of the geriatric coaching bromides like “establishing the run” and “field position” and “controlling the line.”

Leach was going to be out there slinging it around the lot, no matter the circumstances.

Win or lose it was fun to watch, which made Leach very popular in Starkville’s high society.

But Arnett was Leach’s defensive coordinator. Job description: Just get me the ball back. If the two ever got a proper introduction, it was probably by accident.

There have always been rumors that defensive coordinators relegated to teams with those whacky, fast-paced offenses secretly hate the thing. When your Air Raid offense gets a tad off kilter and starts stacking up three-and-outs, your own defense is about to stark cramping up.

Whatever he thought about it, Arnett was able to do something about it when he filled Leach’s shoes. Or maybe he didn’t relish the thought of finding somebody to call the Leach ball plays like the original.

Arnett has brought State’s offense back to the previous century, where an occasional off-tackle stab doesn’t upset the whole apple cart.

So, of course, with Leach and the Air Raid still fresh in every Bulldog’s memory, here Mississippi State is ranked 13th in the 14-team SEC in passing yards.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Then consider that the Bulldogs are second in the ball — often up the middle — with Jo’Quavious Marks the individual leader.

How in maroon hell did this happen?

You’d think the remaining players, most of them recruited by Leach to do Air Raid mischief, would not be suited for ground and pound.

Maybe not.

State quarterback Will Rogers, in addition to entertaining teammates with his lariat wizardry on the sideline, had been running Leach’s wild offense dating to high school before learning to hand off this season.

If he watched LSU’s secondary against Florida State, or even in the first quarter against Grambling, surely he’ll be begging to light a few firecrackers himself come Saturday.

Like in the good old days.

Or maybe that’s overrated.

Let’s assume that when Leach took over for the 2020 season, ready to sling it all over the conference, he had to force-fit a lot of leftover stray cattle into his far sleeker system.

His Mississippi State debut came against LSU in a COVID-depleted Tiger Stadium in front of about 10,000 fans and an almost equal number of cardboard cutouts pretending to be fans.

Using a quarterback who later that season would lose his job, Leach’s first Bulldogs team broke the SEC record with 623 yards passing. LSU lost 44-34 despite giving up only 9 yards rushing.

Establish the run? Phooey.

But maybe it’s back in vogue in Starkville. It just doesn’t seem right though.

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at