October 9, 2018 9:43:37 AM
For two weeks, Mississippi State head football coach Joe Moorhead can be spared the swarm of criticism around his program. His Bulldogs can go about their business without the obituary of their season being drafted as they go. Maybe quarterback Nick Fitzgerald can go a few days without calls for his likely successor, Keytaon Thompson, to take over now -- or at least go with fewer of those calls.
MSU's 23-9 win over Auburn Saturday accomplished those things, and more. It got MSU back into the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 24; it also showed what MSU (4-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) is going into a pivotal stretch of its schedule.
It begins with the obvious: this is a team that runs, and runs well -- under the right circumstances.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not a team that runs well because it runs more. It was running on 56 percent of its plays entering the Auburn game; that number did drop to 50.8 percent in the two losses to Kentucky and Florida, but some late passing spurts in the face of a 14-point deficit in Lexington and a last-minute drive against Florida may have bumped that number down a couple of percentage points.
Running on 77 percent of its plays certainly helped keep MSU ahead of Auburn, but the sustainability of that model is questionable. Eventually, someone will do what Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele did not do -- adjust.
What will beat future defensive coordinators adjusting is the same thing that beat Auburn: scheme.
Moorhead and his offensive staff clearly dedicated themselves to running the ball against the Tigers, but they did so in a different way -- at least, different compared to the five games that preceded it.
On Saturday, that was using motion to give running backs more room to work. It was a savvy wrinkle, one that both neutralized Auburn's stout defensive front and solved MSU's issue of running back involvement: after running backs combined for 24 carries over the two losses, Kylin Hill had 23 for 126 yards on Auburn. The motion also had the benefit of giving Fitzgerald seams between the tackles, where he could use his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame to shed tackles.
Adding wrinkles on top of that each week could keep the MSU running game one step ahead of most opponents, just as it was against Auburn.
The win also showed MSU has the defense to handle most tasks. It took Kentucky's veteran-laden offensive line and Heisman Trophy possibility Benny Snell Jr. nearly 10 minutes of possession in the fourth quarter to wear it down. Florida needed a trick play to score the game's only touchdown.
Auburn tried punishing MSU with an efficient run game. It tried tricks and gadget plays. Both failed.
The task only gets tougher from here. The next four games include the nation's most dominant team (Alabama), the team most poised to threaten it in the SEC West (LSU) and one of three SEC teams good enough to crack the top 25 despite two losses (Texas A&M).
At least, after a performance like last week's and a week of practice to improve upon it, the gauntlet will be getting MSU's best shot. The Bulldogs know what they are and know what it looks like when they execute it to their best. Now all that remains to be seen: is it good enough to beat the best?
Brett Hudson is the Mississippi State beat writer for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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