Injuries didn't help, but Mississippi State's epic collapse was a tough pill for that coaching staff to swallow
It was ready to go.
You know, that column idea I had when Mississippi State was up 14-0 on Louisville in the Music City Bowl despite the fact that it was without Cam Dantzler (NFL Draft), Erroll Thompson (injured), Darryl Williams (injured in pre-game warmups), Garrett Shrader (punched in post-practice altercation) and Kylin Hill was essentially a decoy after getting hurt on his first carry.
So yeah, I was ready to give MSU praise. A lot of it. Up 14-0, the Bulldogs looked like they were set to run all over Louisville, and I was set to give Joe Moorhead and his staff a pat on the back for beating a quality team with a depleted roster.
Yeah, about that.
What happened after that could only be described as a complete and total collapse. A 31-point Louisville run dashed any chance of the Bulldogs ending the season on a winning streak. MSU got conservative, it stopped tackling, it dropped passes, it didn’t sense corner blitzes, it didn’t hold onto the football and it left receivers open. That’s a pretty rough combination of things.
Um, no wonder it turned into a Louisville rout. It was fitting in a way. An MSU team that hasn’t handled in-game adversity well all year once again folded when things got tough.
Good teams don’t allow the opposition to score 31 straight points, regardless of injuries. MSU wasn’t a good team this year. It struggled just to be average. One win against a Power 5 bowl team is, by any stretch, average.
Perhaps we should’ve known that MSU was about to collapse when news came out about the post-practice altercation involving the aforementioned Shrader and Willie Gay. That’s not the sign of a team that’s sticking together in tough times. That’s the sign of a team that was coming apart at the seams.
Meanwhile on the other sideline, a team that won 2 games last year and lost 22 scholarship players clinched its 8th win with a first-year coach. It adjusted after getting punched in the mouth early. Scott Satterfield’s offense had the balance that Moorhead has been desperate to see all year. Macale Cunningham was electric, and Louisville didn’t look like the 1-dimensional team they had been throughout 2019.
Louisville didn’t wilt when Dorian Etheridge was tossed on a questionable (at best) ejection call in the first quarter:
Louisville’s Dorian Etheridge was just ejected for this sequence: pic.twitter.com/uCO3Z4GEFw
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) December 30, 2019
Call me crazy, but I question how MSU would’ve responded to that. I realize that’s hypothetical, but we’re talking about a group that didn’t have a comeback win all year. Forgive me for being pessimistic.
And this is coming from someone who’s as big of a Moorhead believer as there is. I’ve never denied that. I do believe he’s an elite offensive mind, though you wouldn’t know it from the lack of response you saw from this team this year.
Where were the halftime adjustments when the game was clearly slipping away? What happened to those trick plays that we saw in the first half? Were those all the wrinkles they had with a month to prepare?
That’s the frustrating thing for MSU. This team has talent. But too often, they felt either unprepared or unable to make in-game adjustments. Sometimes both.
That’s why Moorhead was getting so much criticism throughout 2019. The lack of development in the passing game with a pair of hand-picked quarterbacks — remember that Moorhead abandoned any idea of Mullen era signee Keytaon Thompson — was baffling.
MSU ranked No. 112 in passing offense this year. That wasn’t supposed to happen with Tommy Stevens. Shoot, that wasn’t supposed to happen with anyone not named “Nick Fitzgerald,” who clearly wasn’t a fit in Moorhead’s system.
Now, of course, the question becomes what Moorhead will do to save his job in 2019. A win on Monday would’ve been a start. The fact that it seemed like the deck was stacked against MSU in Nashville would’ve only added to the belief that Moorhead is on a redemption tour. The guy who said after the Egg Bowl that “you’ll have to drag my yankee ass out of here” is well aware that public opinion isn’t on his side right now. Monday could’ve been a building block.
Instead, it was a complete collapse. It felt like an avoidable collapse, too.
Who knows how that game would’ve gone had Hill not gotten hurt immediately, or if a guy like Thompson could’ve stopped the bleeding when it was clear that MSU couldn’t stay with Louisville going sideline to sideline.
We’ll never know. All we know is that for the second straight year, MSU ended a season with disappointment. Hill and Dantzler are gone, and others could join that list of early NFL departures. Fortunately, Moorhead has been recruiting top-25 classes. Maybe the answer is somewhere in there.
All we know is that there were no answers to be found by Moorhead on Monday. If he doesn’t find the answer in 2020, well, his days in Starkville will be numbered.