November 7, 2018 10:15:39 AM
STARKVILLE -- Joe Moorhead's coaching staff rides a fine line in weeks like these.
It knows the No. 18 Mississippi State football team is a 24-point underdog against No. 1 Alabama, but it also knows its
process is good enough to produce wins against any opponent. The coaches have seen it happen against steeper odds than the ones they'll see Saturday, when MSU (6-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) takes on No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0) at 2:30 p.m. in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. CBS will broadcast the game.
Moorhead's teams have pulled off more improbable wins. Twice in his four years at Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Fordham earned wins at Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The Rams did it by playing with the energy needed to pull an upset and remaining consistent.
"Coach Moorhead always talks about the process producing results," said MSU's quarterbacks coach/pass game coordinator Andrew Breiner, who was Moorhead's offensive coordinator at Fordham. "I think when you're at one of those FCS schools, every one of those kids got told no by a FBS school. Not necessarily from a coaching staff standpoint, but I think a lot of it is intrinsic, and as a coaching staff you try to fan that flame so to speak.
"We remind them they were told no by this school and the opportunity to prove that they belong and are as good or better than the team they're competing against."
Michael Nebrich was the quarterback for Moorhead's first upset, a 30-29 victory against Temple in 2013. He remembers the team was confident after beating Rhode Island and a ranked Villanova before the Temple game. He also remembers how the coaches rode the line.
"They made it a normal week but didn't downplay the situation," Nebrich said. "Our preparation was the same. Our film study was all the same, but they still said this was a big opportunity, this was an opportunity to put us on the map and show the country what we can do."
Approaching an upset like another game kept high-octane offenses in that mode. Nebrich threw for 320 yards against Temple and running back Carlton Koonce ran for 168. Fordham then averaged 7.4 yards per play against Army in a 37-35 victory in 2015.
That mind-set also allowed Fordham to make pivotal plays. Against Temple, it scored on three of its last four possessions, and five of its last seven. Fordham scored on five of its first six possessions against Army, while the defense forced a safety and recovered a fumble in the second half.
Nebrich remembers the sense of calm that came from Moorhead. On his final play against Temple, he had to roll all the way to the sideline to release the ball. The play produced a 29-yard touchdown pass in the final seconds. When he finds the highlights on YouTube, he sees Moorhead calmly striding along "with the same demeanor as if we're playing a D-III school."
Both wins also featured explosive plays early in the game. Fordham's third play against Temple was a 48-yard run by Koonce. Its fourth play against Army was a 46-yard run by Chase Edmonds on third down. The effort to go big early has a purpose.
"You want to put confidence in your team that we can play with these guys and a little bit of doubt in the other guys," Breiner said. "I can remember both of those games early, hitting some big plays and being able to string two or three of those together or get a stop on defense. You talk about it when you're in the other position, don't let them believe. You're trying to keep that belief going."
Against a defense as good as Alabama's, the explosive play will be more important than the other upsets.
"Yards are hard to come by against this defense, whether it's on the ground or in the air," Moorhead said. "I don't think you're going to be able to string together multiple 12-, 15-play drives. At a certain point you're going to have to take a shot, whether it's down the field, a trick play, or something that's going to generate a chunk of yards instead of small increments."
As was the case against Temple and Army, enough of those plays help give a team a chance to win. When that moment comes, Moorhead teams don't thirst for the upset. They thirst for a win.
"I don't remember us talking about upset," Breiner said, "I remember us talking about, 'Let's go win the game.' "
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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