Mississippi State mailbag: Is Will Rogers still the guy? Was the Memphis punt return reviewed?

Andy Kostka
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

MEMPHIS — When Will Rogers’ scramble landed him on his back at the 1-yard line, Mississippi State football fell just short, too. The quarterback had tried to make a play on a must-have two-point conversion late in Saturday’s game, but Memphis held on, delivering the Bulldogs their first loss of the season.

That 31-29 defeat to the Tigers was a game full of controversy and displayed the sort of inconsistent play that has nagged coach Mike Leach’s team so far this season. Mississippi State overcame the inconsistency against Louisiana Tech and NC State, yet the Bulldogs (2-1) couldn’t on the road at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

That leaves Mississippi State looking ahead at SEC play, welcoming LSU on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN). Before then, though, let’s look at this week’s mailbag, with questions ranging from Rogers’ performance to Leach’s longevity in Starkville.

JOHN COHEN:Mississippi State's athletic director expressed his disappointment over the punt play

STOP-AND-START:Mississippi State football couldn't escape getting burned by offensive inconsistency

Is Will Rogers still the guy? Are State fans too harsh on him? — @gil_maneclang

Rogers broke two of his own school records Saturday, attempting 67 passes and completing 50 of them. The sophomore threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.

But once more, Rogers’ average depth of target was among the lowest in the country this week, hovering around six yards. After the game Leach said “sometimes we get conservative on the underneath stuff,” although that is also a byproduct of facing drop-eight zone coverages frequently.

When Rogers and the offense took more chances, good results happened. He found wide receiver Makai Polk for a 41-yard completion in the second quarter — Rogers’ longest completion this season. Rogers also hit Polk for a 36-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

However, those flashes were mixed in with a load of short-yardage passes. Memphis’ pass defense ranked No. 127 in the country entering Saturday, allowing 390.5 yards per game. The Bulldogs surpassed that, but they didn’t take the shots down field that Arkansas State did the week prior — part of the reason Mississippi State couldn’t put up 50 points like Arkansas State.

Still, it has been just three games this season. Rogers has shown improvement, even if there were several missed throws, such as an underthrown deep ball to Jamire Calvin. But the need for further improvement is evident, and it could come through taking more chances down field.

I thought all scoring plays were reviewed by the officials. Was that play reviewed by the replay officials? — @pdonald26

For context: “That play” is the wild 94-yard punt return touchdown from Memphis’ Calvin Austin that the SEC admits shouldn’t have counted. And yes, every scoring play should be subject to an automatic review.

The play wasn’t reviewed, though. In a statement from the SEC, the conference noted how the back judge began waving his arms to signal the play dead. A replay review would have deadened the ball at the spot that signal was made.

Should Mike Leach have been more emotional about the calls on the sideline? — @CharltonGutier1

For all the coaching blowups seen over the years, it was a bit surprising seeing how muted Leach was after the punt return touchdown. The referees should have triggered a replay to review the punt return touchdown, but Leach might have done more to make sure the officials did.

Maybe an outburst wouldn’t have changed anything. It’s hard to know.

Do you think Mike Leach is coach after this year? — @Quezzz94

The season would have to go downhill in a hurry for any major coaching change to take place. Leach is under contract through Dec. 31, 2023, and he would be owed 60% of his remaining salary upon termination if he’s fired without cause.

Leach is three games into his second season. The Bulldogs have two wins, and given the remaining schedule, a bowl game is still very much attainable. Reaching six wins would be a tangible sign of progress from year one to year two (although Mississippi State won the Armed Forces Bowl in 2020 despite a 4-7 record).

The way the offense is performing is a cause for concern. But there’s no need to hit the panic button.