Mississippi State Football film preview: Examining Arizona’s Offense

Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Arizona Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura (7) runs the ball during the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Arizona Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura (7) runs the ball during the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Mississippi State football gets their first big test of the season with Arizona coming to Starkville. What can we expect out of the Wildcat’s offense?

Mississippi State football will play their first notable game of the year on Saturday. Arizona comes to town as State’s one non-conference Power 5 opponent. Though the Wildcats have been one of the Pac-12’s lesser teams in recent seasons, they could be a real challenge for State this year.

HC Jedd Fisch has done a nice job building up the program. Fisch is recruiting really well, and the Cats improved from 1-11 in 2021 to 5-7 in 2022, upsetting 9th-ranked UCLA on the road in November.

There’s an expectation for this year’s squad to reach bowl-eligibility, which hasn’t happed in Tucson since 2017. And a big reason for that optimism is the Wildcat offense.

After struggling mightily offensively in Fisch’s 1st season, Zona took off in 2022. With the addition of high-impact transfers in QB Jayden de Laura and WR Jacob Cowing and breakout performances from several young pieces, the Cats posted 30.8 points per game, a nearly two-touchdown improvement from 2021.

They averaged 462 yards per game and ranked 11th nationally with 6.84 yards per play. They were rated as the nation’s 21st best offense by ESPN’s SP+ ratings. Eight starters return from that group, including de Laura, and there’s a very good chance at them improving once again.

Jedd Fisch’s offense

Arizona fits firmly into the definition of a modern pro-style offense, or as Ian Boyd of America’s War Game calls it, a “pro-spread” offense. The term “pro-style” typically conjures up images of old-school, run-heavy offenses constantly lining up in the I-formation. But to call those offenses pro-style is, frankly, insulting to the actual pros.

That’s because the modern NFL looks nothing like the description above. Today’s pro-game is pass-first and pass-often in nature, with offenses spreading out the defense and getting all skill players involved as pass-catchers.

Arizona falls right into that category.

De Laura threw for nearly 3700 yards last season with 25 TDs at 8.5 yards per attempt. They had two 1000-yard WRs with another over 700. Meanwhile, they ranked 124th nationally in rush attempts per game. They aren’t quite in the extremes of the Air Raid, but they’re certainly pass-first.

Jedd Fisch spent much of his career working in the NFL, and you’ll see the diversity of formations, personnel groupings, and concepts that are standard in pro-style systems. The bulk of Zona’s passing game is true dropback, progression-based passing, which isn’t all that common at the college level these days.

But Fisch also does a good job of scheming his guys open through formations and route combinations that isolate his pass-catchers. Let’s look at some examples.

Arizona’s playmakers and how they’re utilized

The Wildcats’ skill talent on offense jumps off the page. They’ve got big-time playmakers at each spot on offense. Former UTEP-transfer Jacob Cowing is a terror in the slot, leading the team with 85 catches last season. As a true freshman, Tetairoa McMillan hauled in a team-leading eight TDs. The 6’5, 210 WR was Arizona’s highest ever rated signee.

They added coveted Colorado-transfer WR Montana Lemonious-Craig after the spring to fill the shoes of Dorian Singer, who left for USC. Tanner McLachlan had the best season of any Arizona TE since Rob Gronkowski. Michael Wiley is a dangerous RB that they’ll involve in the passing game, and there’s a good group of complimentary RBs behind him.

This might be one of the most underrated groups of offensive skill players in the country, and Jedd Fisch does a fantastic job of finding ways to get the ball.

We’ll start with Jacob Cowing. Cowing is a prototypical slot receiver at 5’11, 175 with the typical shiftiness you expect from that spot. Alongside de Laura, he was a massive portal addition for Arizona last season coming out of UTEP, and he burst onto the scene with three TD catches in his very first game with the Wildcats.

As is the idea with most slot receivers, Zona likes to find ways to single him up with LBs. One way they’ll do this is by lining him up the #3 receiver (the 3rd receiver inside from the sideline) within a trips alignment. Here they go empty with Cowing as the #3 and run a variation of Hoss Y-Juke.

“Hoss” is a hitch-seam combo with “Y-Juke” telling putting the #3 on an option or “juke” route (though we should probably call this “F-Juke”, as Zona lists Cowing as their F receiver). Hoss Juke was one of the favorite pass concepts of the Brady Patriots. It’s a popular concept out of empty, as it’s effective against pretty much every coverage and can highlight matchup advantages for the offense.

Zona tweaks it a bit here by converting the seam routes from their #2s to slot fades (though they’ll run it with the seams too), but the key here is Cowing on the juke route. With Cowing as the #3 and UCLA playing 2-high coverage, he’s going to be matched up one-on-one with a LB with the freedom to simply “get open”. He’s winning that battle every single time.

Tetairoa McMillan is another receiver Arizona tries to isolate. Like Cowing is a prototypical slot, McMillan is your prototypical X receiver, with the size and speed to win one-on-one on the outside.

You’ll see him regularly align as the lone receiver to one side to give him the most space possible to operate with fewer defenders available to cover him. In week one against NAU, Jayden de Laura hit him a few times as the single receiver off of the classic Four Verticals (the Air Raid is everywhere).

The Wildcats do a good job of freeing up receivers in goal line with various rub routes or, if you’re on defense, “pick plays”. One go-to for Zona is to have three receivers aligned in a bunch set all run short crossing patterns while the RB leaks out into the flat on the side of the bunch. The crossers get in the way of any defenders trying to get out to cover the RB, leaving him wide open for a TD. Here they are hitting Michael Wiley for a score on the play. They showed the exact same look vs NAU in Week 1.

Another goal line rub concept Arizona will use is the snag-wheel route combination. The outside WR runs a snag route, essentially a hitch in which the WR first angles inside, while the slot WR runs a wheel route around him. This is a killer versus man-coverage. The snag route should impede the slot defender from staying with the wheel route.

Arizona scored their first TD of the season on this concept, hitting Jacob Cowing on the wheel route. In this case, they add a short post route over top to further pull defenders away and open up Cowing on the wheel. They’d go back to this play later in the game, this time without the post, and with NAU adjusting to keep the wheel route covered, they instead score with McMillan on the snag.

How Mississippi State’s defense matches up

This game will provide a major test for Mississippi State’s defense.  Last year the Bulldogs did a better job of containing the Wildcats than anyone else, holding them to season-lows in points (17) and yardage (316). 10 of Zona’s points came off of turnovers that gave them short fields. It was a prime example of SEC defensive talent stifling lesser athletes.

State’s approach on defense was pretty standard for what we’ve seen from them under Zach Arnett: attacking. They brought a variety of pressures to confuse de Laura and force him into mistakes, trusting their secondary to hold up long enough in coverage.

That’s the M.O. for the Arnett 3-3-5, and it clearly worked in this game. De Laura is naturally a risk taker, and under pressure, the risk outweighed the reward. He threw three INTs and had nine passes broken up while completing just 51% of his passes at 4.9 yards per attempt. All the while, State’s stellar defensive front shut down Zona’s run game to keep their offense totally in check.

But this is not the same Bulldog defense. State’s best pass rushers from a season ago, Randy Charlton and Tyrus Wheat, are gone. Four starters in the secondary are also gone, most notably Emmanuel Forbes. It’s a lot easier to send lots of pressure when A) you know your pass rush can get home and B) you’ve got a future 1st round draft pick taking away half the field.

Arizona might be improved offensively, as well. We’ve already discussed their weapons on offense, but they feel strongly that their OL has taken a nice step forward. Could that group do a better job of handling State’s DL? And de Laura is now in his second year in this offense. What improvements has he made with decision making and diagnosing defenses?

It should be noted State was without their best DL in Jaden Crumedy when they played Arizona last season, and they had no issues causing havoc up front. Crumedy is good to go for this meeting and should be a big factor.

But your edge rushers are typically your biggest threats as pass rushers, and State does not yet know if they’ve got guys who can regularly get after de Laura. Furthermore, can a new look Bulldog secondary contain a fantastic group of pass catchers?

Another factor is de Laura’s running ability. He’s dangerous with his legs, both as a runner and extending plays in the passing game. We exclusively saw the latter in last year’s game. While State pressured de Laura, they struggled to get him to the ground. He regularly evaded pass rushers by escaping the pocket. And on several occasions, he passed up the opportunity to scramble for good yardage and chose to try and make plays in the passing game.

That worked on a few occasions and led to what little success the Cats found on offense. But more often than not, it led to de Laura forcing passes into coverage with less than ideal results. State has struggled to contain running QBs in the past, and if de Laura is more willing to take off, it could spell trouble for the Bulldogs.

In short, much of what was successful for the Mississippi State football team on defense against Arizona last season may not be as effective this time around.

I still expect MSU to try and employ a similar strategy this time around. They’re still the most physically imposing and talented unit, and the Cats have to deal with cowbells this time. I would be surprised if State plays conservatively.

But this is a matchup that could create some problems for State. Arizona looks like the type of offense built to exploit potential issues for this Bulldog defense. We’re going to find out a lot about the Mississippi State defense on Saturday.

Next. Meeting the Opponent: Week 2 featuring the Arizona Wildcats. dark