Mississippi State’s Air Raid offense will be the talk of the town when Mike Leach returns to Lexington for the first time since he called plays for Hal Mumme. In Leach’s first game, the Bulldogs’ offense shocked the world by defeating the defending National Champions at Death Valley and shattering SEC single-game passing records. Against UK’s porous pass defense, many are concerned to see what the unconventional offense can do at Kroger Field. The more significant schematic concern might actually be on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Forms of the Air Raid offense are popping up all across college football. What you rarely see is Mississippi State’s “unique” 3-3-5 defense.
Most college football fans were introduced to the 3-3-5 when Rich Rodriguez was at West Virginia. Instead of playing three down linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs like Mark Stoops’ defense, a linebacker is replaced by a defensive back. In the most basic form of the defense, three linebackers stack behind the three defensive linemen, but to be successful teams rarely give that vanilla pre-snap look. There are a few reasons why teams use this unconventional defensive style:
- Personnel — Some simply don’t have the defensive linemen to line up and go toe-to-toe with opponents.
- Confusion — The non-traditional look appears even wackier when the defensive coordinator uses the front six to bring pressure from a variety of areas. Before the snap the offense doesn’t know who is blitzing or who is dropping into coverage as players shift and crowd the line of scrimmage, often leaving a man free to make a play in the backfield.
“It’ll be a heck of a challenge. They’re different in everything they do schematically than anybody we see on our schedule. This is a huge challenge for us up front, on the perimeter,” said Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “They play hard, they do a good job schematically and there’s a ton of movement all the time. There’s not a play where they do not have movement on that defense.”
Gran described it succinctly — before every UK offensive snap, the Miss. State defense will be moving all over the place to try to confuse Kentucky’s Big Blue Wall. Additionally, they’ll line up in places that are unusual. Typically the offensive tackles are asked to block a defender lined up on their inside shoulder or to the far outside. This week Landon Young will have to block defenders that are lined up directly in front of him (a.k.a. heads up) or on his outside shoulder.
“I think probably the most difficult part about it is you don’t see it much. Not a lot of teams run that. I think we had one last year that ran it. It’s a completely different look than what you’re used to,” said the senior All-SEC lineman. “You don’t get those looks a lot. Not just that but it allows for a lot of movement on their side and a lot of blitzing backers, a lot of this and that. It’s hard to prepare for every single scenario which is really what you need to be able to look at.”
Young mentioned that one team ran the defense against Kentucky last year. UT-Martin immediately put itself in a hole by snapping the ball over the quarterback’s head twice to start the rainy game last November, resulting in a safety and a scoop-and-score touchdown for Kentucky. The Wildcats’ lead was never in question, but it took longer than Gran would’ve liked for the offense to figure out how to create running lanes against the 3-3-5. Kentucky was forced to punt on three of its first four offensive possessions against the FCS foe, the lone early offensive score coming from this 63-yard touchdown by A.J. Rose.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 16, 2020
Obviously, the caliber of athletes on the UT-Martin and Mississippi State defenses are drastically different. Even though they share the same name, the Bulldogs’ 3-3-5 is unlike any other.
“It’s a totally different 3-3-5. They’re a lot different than that team,” said Gran. “This is unique in every way: coverages, where they line up, where they put some of their safeties, up front movement, blitzes, exotic blitzes. It’s a little bit different than that defense.”
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett comes from the Rocky Long coaching tree, a prestigious name in the world of college football defensive minds. In Arnett’s two years in command of San Diego State’s defense, the Aztecs ranked first nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (89.6) and opponent yards per carry (2.9). Through the first two games of the 2020 season Miss. State has allowed only 143 yards on the ground.
“We’re going to have to throw the football against these guys, I really do believe that,” said UK’s offensive coordinator. “Anytime you have to be effective throwing the ball, but even more so with these guys for sure. We cannot get behind the chains. That’s where they thrive.”
Mississippi State thrives in obvious passing situations because of their ability to use confusion in blitzes. The Bulldogs have ten sacks in two games, more than any other team in the SEC.
The Air Raid offense will be the No. 1 topic of conversation across the Commonwealth, but Kentucky’s offense might face a more difficult challenge than the defense Saturday night at Kroger Field.