Mississippi State football's running game nearing notable milestone under Mike Leach

STARKVILLE — The number was so surprising, even Mississippi State football running back Dillon Johnson found it hard to believe.

MSU had 144 rushing yards in Saturday’s win against Texas A&M. The Bulldogs outgained the Aggies and star running back Devon Achane by eight yards on the ground.

“Wow,” Johnson laughed. “That’s crazy. I don’t think we’ve reached that in a while."

MAILBAG:Mississippi State preparing for first half against Arkansas without Nathaniel Watson

A reporter informed Johnson it was the second time under Leach that MSU (4-1, 1-1 SEC) had more than 140 rushing yards in a game.

“For real? Damn,” Johnson responded.

As shocking as the statistics may be, the bigger picture implied Mississippi State was due for a performance of that caliber on the ground. Though the Air Raid still leans heavily on the passing attack, Johnson can feel the utilization of the run game increasing.

“If y’all can’t tell, we run the ball a lot more,” he said.

Such has been the trend for Mississippi State. In 2020, Leach’s first season featured 18.55 rushing attempts per game. That was last in the SEC.

While the Bulldogs remained at the bottom of the conference last season, the average jumped to 20.85 attempts. It’s at 23 this year.

"I did think we needed to improve on it," Leach said Monday. "I thought last year our backs were slow at hitting the hole and our linemen didn't finish blocks at the second level. We've got to keep getting better at that."

Mississippi State has never run for more than 823 yards in a season under Leach. The Bulldogs are on pace for 1,128 rushing yards, including a bowl game.

Mississippi State running back Dillon Johnson fights off Texas A&M defensive back Deuce Harmon during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State running back Dillon Johnson fights off Texas A&M defensive back Deuce Harmon during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The effectiveness of the run game, despite remaining low in attempts, has been evident. Johnson is one of nine SEC players averaging more than six yards per attempt.

The team’s running offense grade (80.3) by Pro Football Focus ranks No. 10 in the SEC after being tied for worst last season.

Winning by an average margin of 24 insinuates more runs to let the clock run, but Leach hasn’t been one to let up.

MSU is averaging four runs in the fourth quarter of wins while averaging fewer than six in third quarters. The Bulldogs had five rushing attempts in the fourth quarter against the Aggies compared to three in the third.

No. 25 Arkansas is third in the SEC with 232.4 rushing yards per game this season. If the Bulldogs outgain the Razorbacks on Saturday (11 a.m., SEC Network), the Air Raid might need rebranding.

Stefan Krajisnik is the Mississippi State beat writer for the Clarion Ledger. Contact him at skrajisnik@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter @skrajisnik3.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Mississippi State football on pace to surpass 1,000 rushing yards