Mississippi State entered 2018 with enormously high expectations.
Sure, the Bulldogs were replacing arguably the best coach in program history, but they were replacing him with a guy thought by many experts and insiders to be one of the most brilliant offensive minds in the game. Armed with one of the more talented teams in the SEC, Joe Moorhead and the Bulldogs began the year with expectations to legitimately contend for a conference title.
Through 2 games, Mississippi State has looked every bit as good as advertised, outscoring Stephen F. Austin and Kansas State by a combined 94-16.
They’re now No. 16 in the nation. If we’re being totally honest, they should be ranked a lot higher than that. The defense is legitimately scary. The rushing attack might be as powerful as any in the SEC. RB Kylin Hill looks like he could be an All-American this year who might emerge in the Heisman race.
But, to quote the legendary poet Rocky Balboa, it ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.
The greatest weakness on offense last year was an inconsistent passing attack, particularly deep. Much of the blame rightfully went to a very thin and injury-depleted receiving corps, but QB Nick Fitzgerald regressed as a passer from 2016 to 2017. His yards decreased from 2,423 to 1,782. His TDs dipped from 21 to 15. Interceptions increased from 10 to 11, despite 75 fewer attempts. His completion percentage improved ever so slightly from 54.3 to 55.6, but his yards per attempt fell from a shaky 6.7 to an even worse 6.2.
You could tell Dan Mullen lost faith in his ability to complete passes downfield and trimmed the playbook. It was zone-read option runs, QB draws and RPOs to short and intermediate routes.
When the Bulldogs hired Moorhead, many, myself included, believed he would do wonders for Fitzgerald’s passing development. Because make no mistake, Fitzgerald is a very gifted QB with the size and natural skill set to play in the NFL. A guy who is 6-5, 240, who can make plays with his legs while also showing very good arm strength and velocity is undeniably a commodity. He just needed a noted QB guru like Moorhead to help him clean up his mechanics to fully unleash his ability. Plus, he’d have a vastly improved receiving corps.
We didn’t get a chance to see Fitzgerald in the Week 1 win over Stephen F. Austin due to a suspension, so there was a lot of buzz circling his return to action against Kansas State.
Reactions to his performance? Well, on the plus side, he didn’t lose any mobility from the gruesome ankle injury suffered in the Egg Bowl. He looked every bit as effective carrying the ball. He finished with 19 carries for 159 yards and looked good in the process.
But as far as passing the ball? He looked a lot like he did last year – he can generate a lot of velocity but struggled with ball placement, particularly on deep routes. He threw into coverage too often and missed reads. He missed open targets and overthrew receivers on numerous deep balls. Often he wasn’t even close to his intended target. He completed 11 of 27 attempts (40%) for 154 yards, with 2 TDs and 1 INT.
Now, before State fans inevitably jump all over me, I know that we have to take all of this into proper context. Unless you’re overreacting, no one should leap to any conclusions after just one game. We have to remember, this was his first game back after suffering a horrible injury, and trying to both master a new offense and improve your lower body mechanics in one offseason while rehabbing an ankle injury is an awful lot to ask. All in all, he had a pretty good game.
I expect Fitzgerald to improve as the season continues. He’ll get more comfortable and confident in his receiving corps, they’ll improve their timing and he’ll develop more confidence throwing the ball. It’s not like Moorhead and company are finished coaching him — he’s a work in progress and they’ll continue to make tweaks to improve his accuracy.
Mississippi State can win football games without an effective passing attack. It’s already been proven.
But if they’re going to beat Alabama, Auburn and LSU this year, they’re going to have to be able to keep defenses honest by successfully moving the ball downfield through the air.
That’s been the difference between the Bulldogs being good and great the past few years. Defenses are going to load up to stop the run, giving their receivers (who looked pretty good, by the way, after a couple of early drops) plenty of one-on-one opportunities.
They have to be able to take advantage of that if they’re going to progress from contender to champion.