STARKVILLE — Joe Moorhead still remembers the smallest details of Nov. 9, 2013. In his second season as Fordham’s head coach, his Rams were 9-0 with wins over two ranked teams and a FBS team. With the FCS playoffs in sight, his head-coaching career was off to a good start.
On this day, he roamed the sidelines terrified.
“I’m thinking, “I’m going to be on Sportscenter as the team that fumbled taking a knee,'” Moorhead said.
That was the day Moorhead learned he should never go under center. It has drawn the ire of his new constituents in his first year as Mississippi State’s coach, but he believes the No. 25 Bulldogs (6-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) have good reason for it. He shared that story with The Dispatch.
On that day, Moorhead’s No. 7 Rams were hosting Bucknell. Kicker Michael Marando was the hero of the day, making two fourth-quarter field goals to take the lead after a 14-point Bucknell third quarter put Fordham in danger.
The Fordham defense made the most of that late lead, forcing two quick stops and dominating field position. Fordham got the ball with 1 minute, 55 seconds left needing one first down to effectively end the game, and running back Carlton Koonce got it. With 55 seconds left, two quarterback kneels would have ended the game.
Backup quarterback Peter Maetzold — starter Michael Nebrich got hurt in the first quarter — went under center for those kneels. Bucknell was coached by Joe Susan, a Greg Schiano disciple who learned a trick from him: if all the circumstances are right, use interior defensive linemen to time the snap count and dive underneath the center, hoping to force a fumble.
It worked. Bucknell got the ball back and drove to the red zone; Fordham had to block a field goal on the final play of the game to keep its undefeated season alive.
At that point, Moorhead turned to Andrew Breiner — then his offensive coordinator, now his quarterbacks coach/pass game coordinator — and they agreed: they’ll never go under center again.
It was more than just the particulars of this incident, a backup quarterback taking a snap against a crafty idea.
“Even if I was in the game, we never practiced under center snaps, it’s not something we do and honestly it’s almost a waste of time,” Nebrich told The Dispatch. “If it’s not in your DNA, why are you going to try to do it in one of the most high-pressure situations possible?”
That explains why, when MSU was kneeling out its win over Stephen F. Austin, it executed those kneeldowns from the Shotgun. It also explains why MSU doesn’t put quarterback Nick Fitzgerald under center in third-and-short situations, as fans have clamored for: the staff has seen what can go wrong when it tries something it doesn’t practice.
“It’s a matter of investment of time. Taking a snap from under center is a skill. It’s a skill that’s a dying art, so to speak,” Breiner told The Dispatch. “At Fordham, we probably took one snap, two snaps under center a week, and they were in walkthrough periods, probably not a defense in front of them. It was very casual. It’s another thing when you have four guys in the A gaps with the game on the line.
“They talk about cost of investment. If we’re going to spend 10 minutes a week working on under center with a bum rush coming, that’s 10 minutes that we didn’t spend on RPOs.”
Given the NCAA regulation of no more than 20 hours per week, practice field time is already limited. Spending an adequate chunk of it on something MSU will use no more than five percent of the time.
The act may look easy, but it only comes easy with significant repetition.
“They watch the NFL, they’ll see other teams in college, they see under center and it looks so easy,” Nebrich said. “If you’re practicing it over and over again, it is an easy concept.
“When you’re in a high-pressure situation, you’re going into something that you just don’t do.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson