October 21, 2018 12:39:52 AM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Joe Moorhead is a man who keeps his composure in any environs, euphoric or toxic. He's had plenty of moments of the former, his facial expression going unchanged as touchdown celebrations and dunk pantomimes occurred all around him.
Saturday was the latter. In the wake of a fourth interception, one that ended even the slimmest of comeback hopes, Moorhead crouched down to the Tiger Stadium grass, took a pinch of grass and threw it in disgust back to the ground.
Moorhead's reaction is the understated version of the team and the fan base's reaction to another inept offensive performance against a Southeastern Conference foe, this one more profound than others by the final score. Fifty-nine passing yards and four interceptions were more than enough to unravel the No. 22 Bulldogs in a 19-3 loss that leaves Mississippi State with a few simple facts to address.
"Time and time again, (the defense) gave our offense an opportunity," Moorhead, MSU's coach, said. "We have to find a way to be more productive in the pass game, and we did not get that done."
The eventual result was not for lack of trying.
The interception that ended the first possession may have inspired MSU (4-3, 1-3 SEC) to test its run game, and to excellent results: runs of 17, 40 and 18 yards gave MSU a first-and-goal. The three runs that followed, combining for a loss of one yard, forced MSU to settle for a field goal -- and proved a passing attack was needed.
It is a passing attack that has been elusive against conference competition, one that averaged 4.16 yards per attempt in its first three SEC games and completed just 48 percent of its passes. Those facts were not lost on Moorhead, who said he tried everything from quick passes to screens and downfield shots to generate passing yards.
Some results showed in desperation time, down 16 in the final minutes. Fitzgerald threw for 40 yards in the final possession, just for it to end with an interception downfield. The possession before it ended with the same fate.
Moorhead said in Fitzgerald's struggles -- 8-for-24 for 59 yards -- he did not consider going to backup quarterback Keytaon Thompson. All he wanted was the passing attack he sees in practice to show itself with 101,340 people watching.
"I couldn't tell you. Got to keep working at it, I guess," Fitzgerald said of the disconnect from practice to games. "In the sense that we have it down, we have a good grasp on our plan and what we're going to do with it. There's a gap between what we're doing in practice and what you're seeing in the game. We have to figure out where that gap is."
Fitzgerald said he will watch the film and be, "very critical," of himself, in hopes that it exposes the missing link. The link was not immediately obvious to Moorhead, either, noting the team's work in 7-on-7 and team periods on its passing. He recognizes game environments are tough to simulate, but also recognizes, "We're not playing with the level of precision we need right now in the pass game.
"It's not just the throw: it's the routes, it's the reads, it's the accuracy, it's catching the ball."
Moorhead promised there will be further evaluation going forward, at every position, in search of what is missing -- whatever it may be.
The theory of it all will be resolved in due time, but even Moorhead -- a man who climbed to the pinnacle of college football coaching on his brilliance in offensive theory -- reaches a point where theory no longer interests him. That point may be now.
"At the end of the day," Moorhead said, "three points isn't going to win many games."
Those three points on the scoreboard hovered above them as they exited in Tiger Stadium's northeast corner. Moorhead approached his quarterback from behind him, said something in his left ear and tapped his back as the receded into the tunnel.
They calmly walked forward to a time of change. Whether that change will come to pass in Fitzgerald's position, Moorhead's scheme, neither or both, change is unavoidable.
Three points isn't going to win many games.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson