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Mississippi State should just always run and never pass

Despite a changing scheme, MSU’s clear strength and clear weakness remain the same.

Auburn v Mississippi State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Mississippi State has been doing really well under first-year coach Joe Moorhead, with two exceptions:

  • A Week 4 loss to Kentucky, in which they scored 7 points
  • A Week 5 loss to Florida, in which they scored 6 points

In their other four games under a coach known for offense, the Bulldogs have averaged 43 points.

A major part of the disparity: MSU threw the ball almost twice as many times in that Kentucky loss as it did while winning comfortably against Auburn. Part of that is game state, but part of it shows MSU remains far better at one part of offense than the other.

Mississippi State’s running game is great.

The ground game hasn’t missed a beat minus Dan Mullen, who installed a spread-to-run system in Starkville years ago.

When the Bulldogs run, they’re as close as the sport has to a sure thing, per Bill Connelly’s stats. Their Opportunity Rate — the rate of runs that go at least 5 yards — is 64 percent, tops in FBS. Their Marginal Efficiency (how often their plays are successful compared to other teams facing similar downs and distances) is sixth. Their Stuff Rate (how often they avoid being tackled at the line or behind it) is fourth at 10.9 percent.

The Bulldogs don’t rip off a lot of huge runs, but they’re getting positive yardage almost every time, and usually they’re going beyond 5 yards. Their 6.02 yards per carry led the SEC through Week 6 and tied for 11th anywhere. It’s a varied attack, with QB Nick Fitzgerald and RB Kylin Hill doing most of the running. Both are right around 7 yards per carry, as is backup RB Aeris Williams. Backup QB Keyaton Thompson’s has averaged 11 per rush.

Everyone contributes. Here’s one of the more dominant offensive line snaps you will ever see, followed by Hill taking full advantage:

Fitzgerald makes a smart handoff read. But look at that offensive line. Right tackle Stewart Reese (No. 51) and guard Deion Calhoun (No. 61) drive the entire front completely out of the play with blocks toward the perimeter. K-State’s front is slanting in that direction, but it’s still tremendous blocking.

The running game is extra impressive when you consider how little defenses have to worry about MSU’s passing game.

Mississippi State fans have been saying this about their offense for literally years, back to Fitzgerald’s first year in relief of Dak Prescott (who had MSU in the top 20 in passer rating in both 2014 and 2015):

So let’s not spend too much time dissecting the passing stats here, other than to say MSU is:

  • 99th in team passer rating
  • 79th in yards per throw
  • 112th in passing Marginal Efficiency
  • 124th in completion rate
  • 89th in sack rate

So, things are not good. Fitzgerald’s remained as bad at passing as he’s been good at rushing. If you count sacks (which, really, we all should), his yards per attempt is 4.7.

The offensive line, a group of maulers in the run game, is considerably worse in pass protection. Fitzgerald gets sacked frequently, including on passing downs:

The play before this one, left tackle Tyre Phillips drew a holding flag for grabbing Kentucky’s Josh Allen, one of the country’s best linebackers. This time, he could barely touch him.

Some of the problem is simpler, though: Fitzgerald’s not accurate. He fell short of 56 percent completions in each of his first two years as the starter. He’s languishing just below 50 percent now, and to be sure, a lot of it’s just that he misses too often.

But some of it’s that his receivers have made mistakes and not been sure-handed. One glaring example was this first down leading receiver Stephen Guidry squandered on the first drive of the Florida game by not securing the ball when he hit the ground:

Or, more egregiously, this drop on a deep ball later in that game:

And some of it’s just bad decision-making:

Fitzgerald hasn’t found a single target he’s worked well with. MSU’s top four wideouts all have catch rates of 52 percent or worse, and only one of them — sophomore Osirus Mitchell at 9.7 yards per target — has yielded above-average results. Senior tight end Justin Johnson and junior depth receiver Keith Mixon are the only other guys above 9 yards a target. The Bulldogs don’t throw much to their running backs.

Mix the good with the bad — the run with the pass — and you get a pretty decent but not special offense.

The Bulldogs hit their bye ranking 48th in Offensive S&P+.

They were averaging 31.2 points (61st) but, more tellingly, 6.5 yards per play (27th).

Their actual point total is low not because they have trouble finishing drives. They’re 23rd in points per scoring opportunity, defined as as a trip inside the other team’s 40. They’re just really slow, operating at the nation’s 109th-fastest adjusted pace.

Mississippi State’s going to be fine, because it has a great defense backing up its amazing/terrible offense.

The defense is excellent. It’s 10th in S&P+, with pass D the driving force. The Bulldogs have a really good secondary, and the front gets a lot of pressure.

The Bulldogs are probably ticketed for between seven and nine wins, and they might end up the SEC West’s second best team.

But there’s a ceiling on this season because Mississippi State can’t throw, and lacking that’s already cost as many as two games.

Moorhead is one of the country’s best and most proven play callers, but sometimes, the pretty obvious answer is the right one: always run, never pass.