Tale of two dogs: Mississippi State’s offense a mixed bag

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) prepares to pass during the first half of their NCAA college football game against Louisiana Tech on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle)
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) prepares to pass during the first half of their NCAA college football game against Louisiana Tech on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Starkville, Miss. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Mississippi State football has a drastic case of good dog, bad dog under first-year Coach Joe Moorhead.

The Bulldogs (6-4 overall, 2-4 SEC), who host the University of Arkansas (2-8, 0-6) on Saturday at 11 a.m., have been very, very good when they've gotten ahead of teams.

They average 41 points and 516 yards per game behind quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in their six victories. The Bulldogs routed overmatched Stephen F. Austin (63-6), Louisiana-Lafayette (56-10) and Louisiana Tech (45-3), and won handily at Kansas State (31-10) in Week 2 in their marquee nonconference game.

They also dispatched of No. 8 Auburn 23-9 and No. 16 Texas A&M 28-13 in Starkville, Miss.

But Mississippi State's losses paint a troubling picture.

The Bulldogs average 4.0 points per game in their losses at Kentucky (28-7), at home against Florida (13-6), at No. 5 LSU (19-3) and at No. 1 Alabama (24-0).

In those losses, Mississippi State has managed 208 total yards per game, below the season-low 216 yards Arkansas posted in last week's 24-17 loss to LSU.

Arkansas' defense has not played to the level of those teams, so Mississippi State is banking on a good dog day Saturday.

Slowing Fitzgerald, the SEC's all-time leader in quarterback rushing yards with 3,302, is the first key for Arkansas.

"It starts there," Arkansas defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "Fitzgerald, there's no question about it ... he's a quality, quality quarterback."

Fitzgerald has five 100-yard rushing games this season, and he's Mississippi State's all-time leader with 19 100-yard games.

Morris said Moorhead did a great job of building his plans around the 6-5, 230-pound senior.

"He's done a good job of adapting to the personnel that he has," Morris said. "He's always been very innovative offensively everywhere he's been, and it's no different here. You're seeing some really innovative quarterback runs and taking advantage of Nick.

"Nick sees it well, he's got a lot of snaps underneath him and he understands the game."

Like the team, Fitzgerald has been hit and miss this season.

Mississippi State (6-4, 2-4 SEC)


Sept. 1 Stephen F. Austin W, 63-6

Sept. 8 at Kansas State W, 31-10

Sept 15 La.-Lafayette W, 56-10

Sept. 22 at Kentucky* L, 28-7

Sept. 29 Florida* L, 13-6

Oct. 6 Auburn* W, 23-9

Oct. 20 at LSU* L, 19-3

Oct. 27 Texas A&M* W, 28-13

Nov. 3 Louisiana Tech W, 45-3

Nov. 10 at Alabama* L, 24-0

Saturday Arkansas* 11 a.m.

Nov. 22 at Ole Miss* 6:30 p.m.

*SEC game

One of the rough outings was against Alabama on Saturday, which snapped the Bulldogs streak of not getting shut out at 124 games.

The Bulldogs had only two drives of more than 17 yards in the game, and just three possessions in Alabama territory. They were 1 of 13 on third-down conversions.

"Certainly 1 of [13] is not going to help you extend drives and put points on the board and put the ball in the end zone," Moorhead said.

The Bulldogs' best series against Alabama was filled with frustration, as they had two apparent touchdown passes nullified by penalties during a 51-yard drive in the second quarter. The sequence ended on Jace Christmann's missed 41-yard field goal after the Bulldogs had reached the Alabama 11.

Mississippi State was forced to punt after taking possession after an interception at the Alabama 40 early in the second half, then lost the ball on downs at the Alabama 40 later in the quarter.

The common denominator for Mississippi State has been a very strong defense, coordinated by Bob Shoop. The Bulldogs boast a long list of veterans led by linemen Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons; linebackers Leo Lewis, Gerri Green and Erroll Thompson; and safeties Mark McLaurin and Jonathan Abraham. All of those defenders have at least 13 career starts, topped by Lewis' 33. Cornerbacks Jamal Peters and Cameron Dantzler have 22 career starts between them.

"Like I said last week about LSU, there's not many weak links out there," Arkansas offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said. "Same goes for this week. They are very talented up front. The No. 1 pass defense, and a lot of that is what they're able to do from the D-line standpoint."

The Bulldogs lead the SEC and rank No. 7 in the country in both total defense (281.3 yards per game) and passing yards allowed (166.8). They are No. 2 in pass efficiency defense, No. 5 in scoring (13.5 points per game) and No. 20 against the run (114.5).

Sweat has 9.5 sacks, which is second in the SEC behind Kentucky's Josh Allen (11) and tied for fourth nationally.

Moorhead, a former head coach at Fordham University, parlayed a two-year stint as offensive coordinator at Penn State -- where he was tabbed by Sports Illustrated and Yahoo! Sports as the "No. 1 rising assistant in college football" in August 2017 -- into the job at Mississippi State to succeed Dan Mullen.

Moorhead has assembled a solid coaching staff that features two former head coaches. Joey Jones (formerly at South Alabama) is the special teams coordinator, while Mark Hudspeth (Louisiana-Lafayette) is associate head coach and tight ends coach.

Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy spent the past four seasons as an offensive assistant with the Green Bay Packers.

Shoop is in his third stint with an SEC school, following terms at Vanderbilt (2011-13) and Tennessee (2016-17). He was named national defensive coordinator of the year while at Penn State in 2014.

Up next


WHEN 11 a.m. Saturday

WHERE Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss.

RECORDS Arkansas 2-8, 0-6 SEC; Miss. State 6-4, 2-4

LINE Miss. State by 201/2

SERIES Arkansas leads 16-11-1


RADIO Razorback Sports Network, including KABZ-FM, 103.7, in Little Rock; KQSM-FM, 92.1, KIGL-FM, 93.3, KAKSFM, 99.5, and KUOA-AM, 1290, in Fayetteville; KERX-FM, 95.3, in Fort Smith, Sirius 94, XM 381

Sports on 11/14/2018


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