Leach, Hail State bring heavy firepower to Baton Rouge

FAMILIAR FOES:  LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels and Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach have been on opposite sidelines before, just not the ones they are on now. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – Mike Leach has seen the likes of Jayden Daniels before, and he knows just what kind of trouble Daniels can cause for his defense.

In October of 2019, the two met at Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium. Daniels was a true freshman that earned the starting nod as ASU’s quarterback. Leach was the head coach of Washington State.

While Leach’s air raid offense put up the video game-like numbers it’s been known to produce, it was Daniels that found himself on the right side of the scoreboard. He completed 26 of his 36 passes for 363 and three touchdowns in the 38-34 win. What’s more, he added 23 net yards on the ground on 10 attempts.

They collide again this afternoon at 5:01 in Tiger Stadium, in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams. Mississippi State (2-0) is a slight favorite over LSU (1-1).

“He’s a good player, we played him when he was at Arizona State,” Leach said in his press conference this week. “He can definitely help himself out with his feet, and when the coverage breaks down and he throws it up you can be in trouble if you don’t keep track of him. So sometimes he gives you two things to keep track of.”

Leach will bring a newer look to his defense for his second meeting with Daniels, though: the 3-3-5 defensive scheme, spearheaded by defensive coordinator Zach Arnett, who played in the system during his college days at New Mexico. Arnett’s experience in the system was enough for Leach to bring him on as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator in January 2020.

“It’s one of those things where you don’t just buy a book, read a few chapters and have somebody run it,” Leach said. “You need a guy who kind of grew up in it. There are other guys who grew up in it, but don’t have the nerve to call it. You need a guy who one grew up in it, and two, is not afraid to call it.”

There’s still the matter of Mississippi State’s high-flying offense, which torched LSU two seasons ago in Leach’s SEC debut. Led by quarterback Will Rogers, who has three seasons of experience in Leach’s offense, the Bulldogs rank near the top in every passing category among the SEC, and are tied for second with LSU with an average of 44 points per game.

It’ll be the biggest test yet for LSU defensive coordinator Matt House, who’ll see a boost in his secondary with the debut of transfer defensive back Sevyn Banks, who’s been battling a hip injury that he suffered at Ohio State last season.

LSU coach Brian Kelly made it clear how he plans to trump the air raid offense: Make sure assignments are executed to a tee, and tackle well.

“It’s really like going against a triple-option offense, in that the phases of it are such that they run it so well, that from a defensive perspective, you have to be so good at your assignments foremost, and then you have to tackle,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to fight for every yard. If you try to get too cute or try to come up with schemes they’ve seen it all. Mike’s seen it everywhere. He’s been running this longer than anybody else, so play sound and fundamental defense. Tackle. Try to get Will Rogers off his spot. If he’s just comfortable in a three-man rush all day, it’s easy for him.”

While Leach is familiar with Daniels, the rest of LSU’s team is still a mystery. Just two games in and without any real measuring stick to judge against Leach is left with the same questions that most LSU fans have: Who are these new faces and how well will they do in SEC play?

“LSU’s a little bit tough to evaluate, they’ve got a lot of new faces,” Leach said. “They were big into the transfer thing. We’ll see how it all turns out, but I think it’s still unfolding.”

Contact Ryne at rgberthelot@gmail.com