NEW ORLEANS — The sudden realization hit Joe Moorhead hard sometime during his team’s season-opening 38-28 victory over Louisiana at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
Maybe it was when the Ragin’ Cajuns seemingly picked up a first down any time they ran a bootleg pass to the left. Or when the Bulldogs only sacked Louisville quarterback Levi Lewis once despite pressuring him a handful of times.
Whenever that exact moment was, the second-year MSU football coach was made all too aware he won’t have the services of former standout defenders Montez Sweat, Jeffery Simmons and Jonathan Abram available.
In 2018, Mississippi State won games with its defensive line wreaking havoc and suffocating its opposition nearly every time out. Well, those three aforementioned players have all moved on to the NFL. As for the new defensive replacements, if the 431 total yards MSU allowed to a team it blasted 56-10 last season is any indication, the old model is no longer a sustainable path to victory.
Now, that doesn’t mean Mississippi State can’t have a successful 2019 campaign. Although it’s likely the Bulldogs are going to have to find other ways to win.
“We’re not (last year’s) defense,” Moorhead said. “We need to find our own identity and we need to find a way to make plays. Ultimately at the end of the day, it’s not about one phase or one unit, it’s about us playing together as a team.”
Yes, the Bulldogs’ season opener wasn’t pretty. Mississippi State shot itself in the foot on more than one occasion with blown defensive assignments, special teams miscues and several miscommunications between wide receivers and a quarterback making his first start for the Bulldogs.
But the sky isn’t completely falling here. The Bulldogs did win, after all. That’s more than another team in the state can say.
Yet, it’s also important to note Mississippi State will enter its home opener against Southern Mississippi next week 1-0 primarily because it had Kylin Hill, and Louisiana didn’t.
Hill turned in a crazy workmanlike effort, rushing for 197 yards on 27 carries. If the Bulldogs need a new team strategy, riding the legs of the Columbus native isn’t a bad plan.
“I think we saw flashes of him last year, now we got him healthy and he’s feeling really good,” Moorhead said.
And for all the negatives that surrounded MSU’s less than optimal defensive day, it was pretty assuring to see the Bulldogs can overcome two offensive starters going down to injury and not miss a beat.
Mississippi State center Darryl Williams and left guard Dareuan Parker both exited with injuries in the first half, but MSU scored 17 second-half points en route to securing a win. It’s unclear how significant the injury to either player is.
“There ain’t too many more hairs I have left that can go gray,” Moorhead said upon learning of both offensive linemen’s injuries.
As the fourth quarter rolled around, the Bulldogs were playing with such a makeshift offensive line Moorhead couldn’t even remember what linemen lined up where on MSU’s last offensive series.
Louisiana took the absence of Williams and Parker as an invitation to use every blitz in its arsenal. But MSU quarterback Tommy Stevens made the throws he had to when it counted. Stevens finished 20 of 30 passing for 236 yards with two touchdowns.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Stevens said of having two offensive line starters missing. “Our mentality is the next guy is going to play just as good, if not better.”
Stevens showcased signs of being the accurate passer Moorhead has craved since being named MSU’s coach. He also has room for growth. The same can be said for the rest of the team.
The next chance for MSU to take the next step will be against Southern Miss Saturday.