Some food for thought on Joe Moorhead's disappointing start at Mississippi State
My prediction that Mississippi State would win 10 games this year is dead and buried. Deep.
Technically, that can still happen, but based on what we’ve seen from the offense through the first 8 SEC quarters of 2018, it’s safe to say that preseason call is 6 feet under by now. Mississippi State fans aren’t happy, nor should they be. There’s already a website dedicated to firing Moorhead. After 5 games!
The guy who was expected to take Dan Mullen’s loaded roster to new heights is instead taking an 0-2 SEC mark into October. Moorhead’s offense has been, to be frank, a mess. Nick Fitzgerald completed 47 percent of his passes for 4.2 yards per attempt, and he’s been held to just 52 rushing yards on 36 attempts in 2 SEC games.
It might be real bad again Saturday. After all, MSU faces an Auburn defense that leads the nation with the fewest touchdowns allowed (5) and the fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (1). Given how overmatched the Bulldogs have looked up front, it wouldn’t be surprising if Deshaun Davis and that Auburn front seven provided some Kentucky flashbacks Saturday.
There’s a perfectly realistic chance that MSU starts SEC play 0-3 and Moorhead risks losing even more fan support.
Welcome to life in the SEC, Joe.
So how should MSU fans feel about this year’s team and about Moorhead’s future? Let’s look at that with a clear, calm head and not in the midst of a loss to Dan Mullen’s new team.
Adjustments have to be made. There’s no doubt about that. Expecting this passing game to look like the group that took off when Moorhead was at Penn State seems unrealistic at this point. Fitzgerald isn’t accurate enough, MSU’s receivers don’t help him out enough and the offensive line can’t hold its blocks long enough. That’s a tough trio to overcome.
For what it’s worth, though, this isn’t the first time that Moorhead’s offense struggled in his first September with a new team.
The 2016 Penn State team got off to that awful 2-2 start in which it lost its only games against Power 5 teams. Take a look at the side-by-side comparison of the offensive production in September:
It’s easy to forget how big of a disaster Penn State was to start the season. People were calling for the offensive-minded James Franklin to get fired, and the clock was ticking on Moorhead’s offense to show better results than that. I mean, how do you only have 101.3 rushing yards per game with Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders?
Obviously Penn State took off after that, which as we found out, wasn’t that surprising with the likes of Barkley, McSorley, Mike Gesicki and others. Mississippi State doesn’t have the playmakers on the outside like that Penn State team did. That’s not changing.
Like Moorhead did in making more designed runs for McSorley after September, the way Moorhead uses Fitzgerald needs to be tweaked. He has to. The offense is too slow-developing for a line that can’t block and for a quarterback who struggles to go through his progressions and deliver an on-target throw. Besides just making quicker decisions, perhaps MSU goes with more tempo to get into a rhythm.
That would, however, require everyone to be fluent in this offense, which clearly isn’t the case yet:
Uhhhh what’s going on here? pic.twitter.com/V8xqTvOCmD
— Brett Hudson (@Brett_Hudson) September 30, 2018
It’s hard to run an offense when not everyone is completely on the same page. Remember, this is still an RPO offense, but it still has new wrinkles. As Hudson pointed out, Moorhead will do things like have a swing pass to the running back out on the flat, but he’ll have the tackle on the same side pull in order to kick out the defensive end.
Mississippi State looks like an offense that’s still trying to process instead of attack. Maybe the Kansas State game masked a few things and created some false confidence. MSU clearly dominated at the line of scrimmage, and Kylin Hill with a head of steam was unstoppable running through some of those massive holes.
MSU has faced much better front sevens the past couple weeks. Kansas State didn’t have a Josh Allen or a Jachai Polite. There certainly wasn’t a Dontavius Russell, either.
So what does that mean? That MSU is destined to get dominated by any team with an above average front seven? No, but until MSU’s offensive front can show that it has its protections down and Fitzgerald can show that he can handle pressure in obvious passing situations, defenses are going to keep the Bulldogs on their heels.
That, of course, is the opposite of what Moorhead wants from this offense. He has seen what his offense can do when it’s clicking and the defense is on its heels. It’s unpredictable, it’s efficient and most important, it puts points on the board. Getting to that point against the likes of Auburn and LSU — both of which are among the top 12 nationally in scoring defense — will be a tall task.
For now, MSU looks like a team that’s going to have to find a way to win a 17-14 game. The good news is that the defense looks capable of that. Moorhead agreed that the defense played well enough to win both of those games. The offense not being able to sustain drives certainly played a part in Kentucky’s strong close (as did all of those penalties).
Moorhead will continue to trust his process. He has seen it work before. I’d be surprised if Fitzgerald were benched for Keytaon Thompson — a career 47 percent passer — in the next couple games because Moorhead believes in the senior. They might not be exchanging texts about winning a Heisman Trophy anymore, but there’s still faith that MSU can turn this around.
It’s understandable why MSU fans would be more skeptical. This was a team built to win now, and all they’ve done in a pair of games against SEC East teams not named Georgia is lay a couple of offensive eggs. Now, the pressure is on to not do the same against a couple of SEC West powers.
Time will tell which gains more steam — MSU’s offense or the “fire Moorhead” website.
“I appreciate the heck out of our fans, I know that they love the Bulldogs and certainly they may not love what we are doing right now, particularly on the offensive side, but I promise you it’s going to get fixed,” Moorhead said this week. “It’s going to get better and the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s an opening, not an oncoming train.”