While Mike Leach certainly has overhauled Mississippi State’s football program in two short seasons, some of his fingerprints remain on Texas Tech years after he was fired by the Red Raiders.
Leach will get his first chance to face off against one of his former programs and coach against a former player Tuesday when the teams meet in the Liberty Bowl.
The matchup is personal for Leach for other reasons, too. He hasn’t forgotten how his tenure at Texas Tech ended or the money he believes he’s still owed.
“We should get this thing settled,” Leach said Monday. “They should pay me. And, you know, we should all celebrate achievements together. But that doesn’t seem to be, you know, what they have in mind.”
Leach not only remains the winningest coach in Texas Tech history with his 84 wins between 2000 and 2009, the Red Raiders’ interim head coach Sonny Cumbie played for Leach between 2002 and 2004. There’s still litigation pending over Leach’s departure when fired in late 2009 after a 9-4 season.
“They cheated me out of $2.6 million dollars plus four years remaining on my contract contract, and I think settling for $2.6 (million) is very generous on my part,” Leach said.
Mississippi State (7-5) is running Leach’s Air Raid system much better in the coach’s second season. Sophomore quarterback Will Rogers has the Bulldogs ranked third nationally averaging 385.7 yards passing and 30.9 points a game.
A victory will ensure the Bulldogs’ best finish since winning eight games in 2018 after finishing the regular season with a 31-21 loss to then-No. 8 Ole Miss.
Cumbie walked on at Texas Tech as a player for Leach, who later awarded him a scholarship. Leach also gave Cumbie a job as a graduate assistant. Cumbie said he has a ton of respect for his former coach and boss but notes neither will be playing.
This has been a rough season for Texas Tech. Cumbie is 1-3 since replacing Matt Wells who was fired Oct. 15. He’s leaving to coach Louisiana Tech with Joey McGuire already hired to take over the program after this bowl, sponsored by AutoZone.
Cumbie’s focus is finishing this job and helping the Red Raiders to have some fun. Texas Tech is coming off a 27-24 loss to then-No. 9 Baylor.
“It’s just not a football game,” Cumbie said. “It’s a 13th game that our guys have earned.”
The Bulldogs quarterback has thrown for 300 yards in 10 straight games. He leads the Southeastern Conference and ranks second nationally with a school record 4,449 yards passing as the eighth SEC quarterback ever to reach the 4,000-yard mark in a season.
Rogers led the SEC in league play completing 324 passes, completing 74.7% of his passes and averaging 372.1 yards passing a game. He was second with 2,977 total yards and 22 touchdowns. He’s the 10th different quarterback Leach has coached to the 4,000-yard mark.
Keying in on one Texas Tech running back won’t be easy. The Red Raiders have three different backs who’ve run for at least 300 yards this season. SaRodorick Thompson leads the Red Raiders with nine rushing TDs, but Tahj Brooks has six running for a team-high 472 yards this season.
That’s a big reason why they average 150.7 yards rushing per game. Texas Tech currently has run more (392) than they’ve thrown (362) on offense this season. Yet the Red Raiders rank 10th nationally with 22 plays of at least 40 yards this season and average 30 points a game.
HAIL STATE’S DEFENSE
Mississippi State’s defense is ranked 10th nationally and third in the SEC against the run, allowing only 101.2 yards per game. The Bulldogs held six opponents under 100 yards rushing and allowed only 71 first downs rushing. Since Leach took over, the Bulldogs have allowed only 24 rushing TDs.
Texas Tech wide receiver Erik Ezukanma won’t be playing after announcing last week he’s preparing for the NFL draft. That doesn’t help Donovan Smith, the freshman making the fourth start of his career. Smith has played 10 games this season and is completing 63.1% of his passes and has six TD passes with only two interceptions.