It was a wild ride for Mississippi State fans in 2018, with many ups and downs marking their first year under head coach Joe Moorhead.
Was it a perfect year? Not by any stretch. If anything, the Bulldogs probably underachieved. But you know what? Overall, it was a pretty good year for Moorhead, who undoubtedly had to endure a learning curve. Moorhead is a better coach today than he was when he took the job, and he’ll continue to improve (especially once he finally has a QB to open up his offense).
Here are the 10 best things that happened in Year 1 of the Joe Moorhead era.
10. Went to a good bowl game
Going to the Outback Bowl is a fine accomplishment, especially for a first-year head coach. Undergoing the trials and tribulations of learning on the fly in the brutally difficult SEC West and coming out with a New Year’s Day bowl game is impressive, even if the outcome of the game wasn’t what Bulldog fans were looking for. If nothing else, it sets the standard for Moorhead moving forward.
9. Won the games they should have won
I know, I know – some might not think this is a big deal and shouldn’t be on this list, but winning the games you should win mustn’t be undervalued. For instance, no hiccups in nonconference play and dominating the bottom-feeding SEC West programs like Arkansas and Ole Miss. Consistently winning the games you should win is what good programs do. The teams that Mississippi State is trying to compete against at the top of the conference almost never drop games they shouldn’t, and that’s one of the things that separates them from those that are up and down every year. So far, so good.
8. Emergence of Kylin Hill
The rushing attack drove the offense this year, and while Nick Fitzgerald assumed the bulk of the carries, Kylin Hill emerged as a legitimate ball carrier with the speed to bounce it outside for chunk yardage and the power to plow between the tackles. Hill finished with 734 yards on 117 carries (6.2 yards per carry) and 4 touchdowns, and also flashed in the passing game, finishing second on the team in receptions with 22. Ultimately, it’s quizzical he only had 4 games with 10+ carries, and while hindsight is 20/20, Bulldogs fans have to feel excited to see Hill take on a bigger role in the offense next year.
7. Moorhead adjusted and adapted
A signature trait of a good coach is an ability to continually adapt and adjust strategy and game plan based on results. Moorhead did just that throughout the season. A great example was early in the year, when, after passing game debacles against Kentucky and Florida, State focused on the rushing attack, producing a signature 23-9 win over then-No. 8 Auburn, a game in which the Bulldogs rushed for 349 yards. Moorhead was never able to run the full playbook that he wanted to run given the passing limitations of Fitzgerald, so he adjusted strategy, routes and tendencies to better capitalize on the natural strengths of the personnel on hand.
6. Continued to strengthen ties in-state
It’s no secret that for a program like Mississippi State to have sustained success, it’s absolutely imperative that they dominate in-state recruiting. The simple fact is that the Bulldogs are never going into Atlanta, Miami or Houston and reel in a coveted 5-star. They can bolster their signing classes with out-of-state prospects, but they absolutely have to clean up in-state. Dan Mullen did a good job of this and it was a catalyst for his sustained level of success over 9 years. Moorhead has continued that trend, and despite playing catch up with a new staff, signed 13 of the top-27 in-state players last year (including 4 of the top 5) and has either signed or received commitments from 9 of the top-27 players in the class of 2019.
5. Hiring Bob Shoop
The first, and arguably most important thing a newly hired coach must do is assemble his staff. For a coach like Moorhead, who had no prior experience in the SEC nor recruiting ties in the region, hiring a quality staff long on both experience and ties to the deep south was even more paramount. Safe to say, he did a great job assembling his staff, and especially hit a home run by bringing in Bob Shoop to run his defense. Shoop, who previously coordinated defenses at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, not only provided a valuable sounding board for Moorhead off the field, but turned the Bulldogs defense from a solid unit into the best in the country.
4. Fitz joins exclusive club
Fitzgerald likewise had many ups and downs in his long career in Starkville, but he should undoubtedly go down as one of the best quarterbacks in program history. One of his crowning career achievements came in the Week 3 win over Louisiana (Lafayette), when, after scoring his 4th rushing touchdown of the day, became just the 3rd player in SEC history to both run and pass for at least 35 career touchdowns. The other two in the club? Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott. Not too shabby. With his career officially in the books, he finishes with 101 career touchdowns, 46 rushing and 55 passing.
3. Signing Garrett Shrader
Moorhead’s playbook was limited due to Fitzgerald’s inconsistent accuracy and ball placement, so we never really got to see the type of offense that he truly wants to run. Naturally, it was imperative for Moorhead to sign a quarterback that he really felt comfortable with, one that he handpicked and displayed the skills and attributes necessary to run the full playbook. Moorhead did just that by securing the signature of 4-star quarterback Garrett Shrader, a 6-4, 215-pounder out of Charlotte (N.C.) with not only the velocity and ball placement to open up the passing game, but has the speed and athleticism to keep defenses off-balance with his ability to run the ball. This could ultimately be the most important thing Moorhead did in his first year at the helm.
2. Defense asserted pure dominance
The defense was absolutely fantastic in 2018, finishing the regular season with the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, allowing just 12 points per game. When the Egg Bowl was concluded, the Bulldogs were No. 6 in passing defense (164.2), No. 10 in rushing defense (105.1) and No. 1 in total yards allowed per game (269.3). Shoop deserves a lot of credit for turning a very good defense from 2017 (allowing 20.9 points per game) into an historically great unit. Their 13.5 points allowed per game on the season is the lowest the program has seen since 1999 (13 points per game), and suffice it to say, defending offenses in that era was easier than it is today.
1. Annihilating Ole Miss
Without a doubt, the highlight from Year 1 of the Moorhead era was absolutely annihilating their hated in-state rivals, Ole Miss, in Oxford 35-3. The Bulldogs racked up 309 rushing yards while holding the once-vaunted Ole Miss offense to just 199 total yards, a remarkable feat considering the Rebels’ offense was ranked in the top-10 nationally in numerous categories. The win not only put the Bulldogs in position for a good bowl game, but it also certainly made an indelible impression on in-state recruits, nearly all of whom are fought over between the two rivals.