How does a top 3 offense through three weeks flounder like Mississippi State’s has?
Where did we go wrong?
We scored 150 points through three games…and only mustered 13 in the last two.
We saw what seemed like dozens of slam-dunk touchdown celebrations, but haven’t witnessed a single alley-oop now in the last 6 quarters.
Who’s to blame?
Is it a porous offensive line? Is it subpar quarterback play? Is it a flawed scheme? Is it pass catchers that aren’t catching passes? The obvious answer is that the blame rests on all of these units. The big men up front played a stellar first three games. Yes, that’s taking into consideration the opponent. Even against lesser competition, what the offensive line was able to do in the first three weeks is impressive. Two sacks through three games and both were allowed when substitute linemen were in mixed-up positions when on the field. But they’re getting beat by inferior players on the fronts of Kentucky and Florida. Greg Eiland faced a first-round talent snap after snap against Kentucky, but he still got beat on the edge more than he should’ve. The personal physical failures, however, are not what’s caused the breakdown of that position group. It’s mental errors, miscommunication, and faulty instructions. Take the final offensive play against Florida last Saturday. Jonathan Stiner, from the middle of the defense, takes a moment’s hesitation before sprinting through a gap big enough for a semi-truck to parallel park in; he levels Nick Fitzgerald and ends a comeback attempt by MSU. Now, one of three things happened—somebody didn’t account for Donovan Stiner at the pre-snap, somebody thought that another player was responsible for Stiner, or Fitzgerald didn’t read the defense correctly and called out the wrong protection. And this doesn’t exhaust the possibilities of what may have gone wrong on that particular play, but those three things are the root of what’s holding this offensive line back. Now, receivers have to catch balls. They are leaps and bounds better than where that group was a year ago, but we all know that we were one dropped pass away from not only scoring a touchdown, but winning the game. That group is talented enough to win games, and they are farther down the list of concerns for me. Our offensive scheme is falling apart. We are an offense that obviously predicates on the rush. With Kylin Hill, Aeris Williams, and Nick Fitzgerald in that backfield, running the ball should be an afterthought. Then why did Hill and Williams combine for merely 12 carries last week? Because when you continue to rush the ball with success, a junior high football player knows that putting extra men closer to the line of scrimmage and farther from the sidelines will help neutralize that threat. This is why a team needs to be balanced—if you only can pass, you’ll see seven men dropped into coverage with some pass blitzes sprinkled in. If you can’t pass, running the ball 50 times a game is only so effective; it’s hard to win a game played in a phone booth as an offense. But our philosophy regarding these points is flawed. When I look at the offense, I see a team that thinks “if they won’t let us run, we’ll just pass all over them.” But we don’t have the personnel to attack a defense that way. Fitz isn’t Peyton Manning. He will never sit in the pocket for the entire game and shred SEC defenses with perfectly placed balls and well-timed throws. That’s not his game, and that’s okay. There’s a reason that players with that ability end up in with their picture hanging in Canton, Ohio. It’s a rare gift. In fact, I can’t remember a quarterback that won a national championship playing that way in my lifetime (Tua Tagovailoa is that kind of player and he can run the ball, but he didn’t start that game or the season). It’s a dual-threat league. If Fitz isn’t going to torch everybody, we need to stop taking a five or seven step drop and airing it out every play looking for corner routes and posts, and looking to pass fo2 8-12 or 15-25 yards per attempt. A five-yard completion on first down is successful. What the offense needs to do is let the pass game serve to re-open the run game. Florida doesn’t have a great offense, but they used screens (so many screens), quick slants, and other easy passes to let them get some yards on the ground. Neither were pretty—their running backs are average at best and Franks isn’t a fantastic passer either—but it won them the game. I think we need to let Fitz pass only enough to make the defense honest—if they put seven or eight men in the box, then we can throw something that takes advantage of that without having to hit a man in stride downfield or relying on flawless pass protection. I mean come on, how can you expect to survey the field, get to a second or third read, and deliver a strike downfield with 12 or 13 players within a yard of him? Quick passes, roll outs, screens, jet sweeps, and simple reads that force the defense to defend the aerial attack just enough to open up the running game. Now, although this makes it easier for Fitz to operate, he still has to be competent. I have never, ever advocated benching Fitz and I’ve always supported him…but he’s got to be better. He wasn’t good enough to beat anybody last week. He didn’t disappoint totally in the first half, but the second half was abysmal. I’ve seen him be better; anybody that has watched any game before Kentucky has seen him be better. He can be better, and I believe he will be. Additionally, we heard so much about the run-pass option before Joe came here, but I haven’t seen too much of it yet. The fake-handoff-Fitz-rolls-out-then-sidearms-a-bullet-to-a-receiver-on-the-edge play, (or FHFROTSABTAROTEP, as I’m sure it’s called in the Bulldog huddle) is nifty and effective, but I haven’t seen us run the RPO with the devastating effectiveness we expected. Another interesting wrinkle to this issue was revealed during the post-game media availability, when coach Moorhead divulged that Fitzgerald was checking out of plays at the line of scrimmage and into plays that were less favorable—specifically checking out of runs and into passes. By the look of this offense’s direction, this has got to stop. Coach Moorhead prides himself on giving his signal callers freedom to make decisions themselves, but here’s a hot take—it ain’t workin’. I would expect a senior to know more and do better, but he’s going to have to give up his play-changing powers if the offense is going to succeed. The crux of all this is this: Joe wants to run an offense that his players aren’t that well suited for. Yes, we want to run 50% passes and 50% rushes, but we run the ball too dang well for that and aren’t throwing with enough effectiveness to do so. We can fix this, and as fans, we have to believe that we will fix this. The pieces are there, the skillset is there, the coaching is there…we just have to put the right pegs in the right holes. The puzzle just doesn’t fit together the way we put it together so far. It may not get better, but look at the bright side—it can only go up from here, right?