October 22, 2018 10:18:51 AM
BATON ROUGE, La.
October 6 was supposed to be the watershed moment of Joe Moorhead's first season as Mississippi State's football coach, if not the entire tenure. His offense broke tendency to tremendous results: quarterback Nick Fitzgerald ran his way to the record books, running back Kylin Hill ran for 126 yards and the method of it all, in theory, was recreatable for the six games that followed.
For a few hours, the offensive failures of the first two Southeastern Conference games -- 403 yards between the two and 13 combined points -- seemed a distant memory.
Two weeks later, the late September exasperation that consumed a fan base did the same to the Bulldogs that thought they were past it. Offensive imprecision is back; without serious change, it is here to stay.
The preseason No. 18 Bulldogs are once again out of the top 25 and have a familiar culprit to blame. That culprit is no secret.
"Defense, do exactly what you're doing. Special teams, for the most part, do exactly what you're doing," quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said.
"The offense, we have to put it together."
When MSU (4-3, 1-3 SEC) had it together, it was being creative in its rushing attack. This was not creativity for creativity's sake: this was creativity for the running back's sake.
In the offensive struggles of the losses, quarterback Nick Fitzgerald took 36 carries; neither of MSU's primary running backs. Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams, took more than 13. Twenty-three carries for Hill helped MSU average 6.1 yards per carry despite running 77 percent of the time.
There were times were coaches spoke like men who were ready to ride that wave as long as it could take them.
"Call plays where he gets it. That's part of it. We can call more plays where they get it whether we throw it or hand it off to them," offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. "We have two really good players and they have to get touches, Nick's an explosive player and we have some guys on the outside that need to get touches, too. Going forward, it's definitely going to be an emphasis of ours to make sure we find a way to get those guys the ball."
In statistics alone, this looked like a regression to MSU's former self: Fitzgerald ran 23 times against LSU to Hill's eight and Williams' six.
To be fair, MSU had a wrinkle at No. 4 LSU (7-1, 3-1 SEC) -- quarterback power. If it felt like MSU spent most of the game running Fitzgerald into the interior, that's because it did: 19 of his 23 carries were there, but it is more nuanced than that. Only three of those carries were designed quarterback runs all the way; the other 16 were run-pass options (RPOs), where Fitzgerald at least seemed to have the option to pass if his reads told him to do so.
Efficiency was not an issue: on those inside carries that were part of RPOs, he averaged 6.4 yards per carry. Explosiveness was, as only two of those carries went more than seven yards, and Moorhead recognized that. The real issue is efficient running never made the logical leap to passing opportunities created and capitalized upon.
"We ran the ball fairly well today. They were giving up 100 yards per game and I think we had that in the first half," Moorhead said. "It's what we do most, but we can't run the ball every single play of every single game. We have to find a way to throw it, and not just on third down when their ears are pinned back. You have to get separation on your routes. We have to find a way to throw on first and second down, too."
That conversation will be the most important one between now and MSU's game against No. 16 Texas A&M. Moorhead said he and his staff, as he says they always do, will evaluate everyone and find the ones that give them the best chance of winning. Fitzgerald said he will be especially critical of himself in his own evaluation in search of the missing link.
ESPN beat them both to that conversation.
With just over seven minutes left in the game, the ESPN broadcast crew of Dave Pasch, Greg McElroy -- a former Alabama quarterback -- and Tom Luginbill were discussing the quarterback MSU had on the sideline (Keytaon Thompson) more than the one taking the field in front of them. The two interceptions Fitzgerald would throw after that conversation did nothing but add to its topic: is it time for a quarterback change?
Whether a true quarterback controversy emerges on the practice field or not, one has already emerged outside of it. There are more avenues for change, but at this juncture, the question is not if MSU changes, but how it chooses to change.
Without change, a season once dreaming of a January bowl game could crash and burn in October.
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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