While it would be unjust to solely blame Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello for all that ails the Bulldogs offensively, it is difficult to maneuver around his issues with ball security.
He leads the FBS in interceptions thrown (nine) and committed four of the Bulldogs’ six turnovers in their 24-2 loss at Kentucky last week. In search of answers, Mississippi State won’t have long to look as 11th-ranked Texas A&M visits Starkville on Saturday for an SEC battle.
Since passing for an SEC-record 623 yards in the Bulldogs’ season-opening win over defending national champion LSU, the Stanford graduate transfer has steered the Bulldogs to losses against Arkansas and Kentucky. What’s more, the Razorbacks snapped a 20-game conference losing skid in their win, and Kentucky won while gaining only 157 yards of offense. And against the Wildcats, Costello was benched.
“We’ll see,” Bulldogs coach Mike Leach said when asked in what areas Costello needs to improve. “We’re going to have competition at nearly every position out there because we need to get the most cohesive group. I think as far as being purely competitive out there at every position, I think that’s what we need to do. I think we need to take care of the football better for sure.
Considering that the Bulldogs (1-2, 1-2 SEC) played their best game against their toughest competition, and came up wanting against apparently lesser opponents, perhaps Leach will get his team to rebound against the Aggies (2-1, 2-1). Playing “up and down” was a not atypical of Leach’s teams in his eight seasons at Washington State.
“As I said in the last press conference, I don’t think we’re protecting well. I don’t think we’re seeing the field very well,” he said. “And I don’t think we’re catching very well or running routes very well. We have the ability to do it because we’ve seen them do it.”
“In some cases, maybe some of the young guys have stage fright. Some cases we just need to work harder and develop some of the experience that allows us to do that.”
Texas A&M is having no such issues with its signal caller. Senior quarterback Kellen Mond was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week after leading Texas A&M to a 41-38 victory over then-No. 4 Florida last Saturday, passing for 338 yards and three touchdowns.
Mond became the school’s all-time leader with 8,244 passing yards and already owns program records for completions (680) and attempts (1,168).
Yet, despite his stellar play against the Gators, the Aggies recognize their defensive approach against the Bulldogs will be paramount.
“You have to be talented and you have to be diverse,” Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Can you pressure the quarterback? Can you cover zone? Can you play man-to-man? I mean it’s about being diverse.
“Mike (Leach) has always thrown the football around and he’s done a great job and he’s very sneaky with how he plays the running game. You’re going to have to play disciplined, hard and tough football.
“We’re going to have to tackle in space very well and not miss tackles. We’ll have to contain guys and keep leverage on the football. You look at their receivers and it’s usually eight to nine guys a game to catch balls. In their last game, their tailback (Kylin Hill) had 15 catches, so you see the ball goes all over.”
The responsibility of maximizing the Bulldogs’ offensive weapons falls squarely at the feet of Costello. That fact puts Leach in the position to either have Costello better prepared for the challenge ahead or to unearth an alternative option at quarterback better suited for the job.
“I want him to see the field better and take care of the football,” Leach said of Costello. “See the field better, quicker, and efficiently. Take care of the football, I think, is key.”