Report card: Grading Mike Leach, Mississippi State football in Armed Forces Bowl

Tyler Horka
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

FORT WORTH, Texas – Mike Leach took Mississippi State football down to the Lone Star State to play No. 25 Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium on Thursday.

The Bulldogs are returning to the Magnolia State with a trophy and a bowl win for the first time since 2017 after a 28-26 victory that ended in a brawl

Watch:Mississippi State-Tulsa football brawl at the end of the Armed Forces Bowl

Mississippi State (3-7) took a lead over Tulsa (6-3) in the second minute and never relinquished the lead. The Bulldogs finished a tumultuous season with a postseason win, and they did it by being effective in all three phases of the game. 

Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach looks on from the sidelines during the first half of the Armed Forces Bowl NCAA college football game against Tulsa, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, in Fort Worth, Texas.

This is a report card Leach, the first-year Bulldogs coach, will want to hang onto this offseason. 

Offense: B+ 

It wasn't always picture perfect, but it got the job done. 

Mississippi State scored three offensive touchdowns. On a cold, wet day, Leach turned to the running game far more than he usually does. Mississippi State ran the ball 30 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns. 

More:How Twitter reacted to the Mississippi State football brawl vs Tulsa in Armed Forces Bowl

It was tougher sledding through the air, but freshman quarterback Will Rogers still made enough throws to win. He finished 19-of-30 for 148 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions. 

The weather didn't warrant an explosive offensive day. Mississippi State did what it could, and it came out on the right side of the scoreboard as a result.

Mississippi State cornerback Jay Jimison (36) breaks up the pass intended for Tulsa wide receiver Josh Johnson (13) during the first half of the Armed Forces Bowl NCAA college football game Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Defense: B+ 

Bend, don't break. 

Mississippi State nearly gave up 500 yards, but it came away with two critical turnovers and forced two field goals on possessions Tulsa took inside the 15. Six points on those drives compared to a possible 14 was a crucial difference. 

The Bulldogs have been opportunistic defensively all season, and that didn't stop Thursday. Mississippi State also recorded four sacks and five tackles for loss. 

The unit was forced to stay on the field for 86 plays compared to the 60 that Mississippi State's offense ran. It still made enough plays and stopped Tulsa's offense enough times to win. 

Coaching: A

Leach had his players ready to go. 

The game was chippy before the brawl. But between the whistles, Mississippi State was locked in offensively, defensively and on special teams. 

In a year in which players opted out across the country before bowl games, Leach managed to keep his team engaged and ready to go. That was no small feat. 

This grade has nothing to do with how Leach managed the brawl in the media. He seemed nonchalant about it, and maybe he shouldn't have. But when the game was actually in progress, his team was locked in. That's credit where credit is due. 

Correction: Due to an editing error, the Mississippi State football coach was incorrectly identified in a story in Sunday's sports section. The story has been corrected. 

Contact Tyler Horka at thorka@gannett.com. Follow @tbhorka on Twitter. To read more of Tyler's work, subscribe to the Clarion Ledger today!