TAMPA, Fla. — When Joe Moorhead was introduced as Mississippi State’s football coach 13 months ago, he felt there were enough similarities between his offense and his predecessor’s, Dan Mullen, to label the systems “same church, different pew.”
Time proved there was a bigger than expected gap between those pews.
The first season of the Moorhead era ended with an 8-5 record after a 27-22 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl. The struggles the Bulldogs experienced showed the transition from Mullen’s system to Moorhead’s was harder than initially believed.
“I think even people on the team didn’t expect how different the offense would be, me included,” MSU senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said. “I thought there were a lot of similarities, but in the end there really wasn’t. It’s a totally different philosophy for the game, which is great. It’s great to change, but it’s harder than people expected to be, and I think it showed early on.”
Through those struggles, Fitzgerald’s 51.6 percent completion percentage was well off the marks of 57.9 and 66.5 percent Trace McSorley boasted in two years at Penn State with Moorhead as offensive coordinator. The Nittany Lions averaged 69 touchdowns per season in those two years. MSU’s offense scored 48 touchdowns this season.
Wide receiver Osirus Mitchell benefited from the changes, leading the team with 26 catches for 427 yards and four touchdowns, but they were still an adjustment.
“Receivers running more routes, I guess. More complex,” Mitchell said. “We have a lot of adjustments. We run deeper routes. We had to get our stamina up.”
The mental burden might have been heaviest on Fitzgerald.
“I reflect on not having a spring, him not being able to play in the first game and the experience needed to make those decisions at a fast pace,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “In our offense, the quarterback has to make a lot of decisions in the run game and in the pass game, and with his lack of experience I thought he handled it really well. You take him in a classroom, he knows what’s going on. He knows what he’s supposed to do.”
MSU hopes the offense’s struggles are nothing more than growing pains. That hope is MSU will find every kink and address them in the offseason. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said his team saw the Moorhead offense it knew from its two meetings against Penn State in MSU.
“There’s some similarities obviously and some differences, too, and probably the biggest similarity is they both (have), in my mind, (is) the quarterback was the catalyst,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Said Moorhead, “I think there’s a significant amount of carryover. There’s some things we’ve done at Penn State and other places I’ve been that maybe not necessarily fit because of who we have. But I would say the base foundation and structure of it was the same.”
In the final weeks of the season, Fitzgerald became more aware he would have to overcome having just one year to run Moorhead’s offense. He also knew the quarterbacks behind him, led by Keytaon Thompson, would not be limited in such a way. He has expressed excitement about what Thompson will be able to do with that advanced knowledge. Some already are seeing signs of the time paying off.
“(Thompson) got all of the spring, he got a lot of fall camp, and I think you can see there’s a different level of confidence,” Getsy said. “He’s a guy when you call a play, he knows what that play means and what the objective of that play is, so he’s very decisive.
“Getting those experiences, those reps, that’s the best way to learn. There’s nothing that beats that.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson