Struggling Mississippi State works to fix broken offense

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              Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) is knocked out of bounds by a Florida defender during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. Florida won 13-6. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
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Mississippi State’s Osirus Mitchell made the mistake that might have cost the Bulldogs a win.

The sophomore receiver was open during the third quarter against Florida and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald hit him in stride. But the ball bounced off Mitchell’s hands and fell to the turf as more than 60,000 fans at Davis Wade Stadium groaned in unison.

The drop — on an almost certain touchdown — was the most glaring error in the Bulldogs’ frustrating 13-6 loss to Florida on Saturday.

First-year coach Joe Moorhead could have been furious with his team and with Mitchell. Instead, he’s opting for the positive route.

“Yelling at him ain’t going to solve anything except put him more in the tank,” Moorhead said. “The kid knows he made a mistake and had a critical drop. To me, you pat him on the head and tell him you’re going to need him.”

Moorhead hopes Mitchell — and the rest of his Mississippi State offense — responds soon.

Mississippi State (3-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) has had a rough two weeks, falling from No. 14 spot in the Top 25 to completely out of the rankings after back-to-back losses to Kentucky and Florida.

The issue is clear: The Bulldogs’ offense has scored just one touchdown over two games. Things won’t get any easier this weekend when the Bulldogs host No. 8 Auburn (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday.

“Offensively, we’ve got to get it rolling,” Moorhead said. “That starts with me.”

Moorhead arrived in Mississippi State with the reputation of being an offensive savant. Before taking over in Starkville, he was the offensive coordinator at Penn State for two seasons, and the Nittany Lions thrived thanks to the combination of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.

Moorhead inherited a Mississippi State offense that had veteran playmakers, including Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams, but the transition hasn’t been smooth.

Fitzgerald was suspended for the season opener because of a violation of team policy and even after he returned, he’s never looked completely comfortable running the offense. Williams has had a big drop in production from last season as sophomore Kylin Hill has earned a bigger share of snaps.

Moorhead said before the season that he’d like Fitzgerald to complete around 65 percent of his passes. Instead, he’s at 49.1 percent and averaging about 160 yards passing per game.

“We need that to improve,” Moorhead said. “Part of that is the quarterback, part of that is protection, part of that is routes and part of that is catching the ball.”

Mississippi State it working to figure it out very soon before a once-promising season turns into a bitter disappointment. The Bulldogs were a trendy pick to win the SEC’s Western Division before the season and Moorhead didn’t shy away from those expectations.

Right now, Mississippi State simply needs to win a game.

“We can’t worry about our goals, although every single one of those is still achievable for us,” Moorhead said. “We’ve got to play one game at a time, trust the process and do the little things right and know that it doesn’t get any easier from here.”

The good news for the Bulldogs is the defense is still playing at an elite level. Mississippi State is giving up just 13.4 points per game, which ranks eighth nationally, and is averaging more than nine tackles for a loss per game, which ranks seventh.

If the offense can shake its doldrums, there’s reason to believe Mississippi State can still be a factor in the SEC race. But it has to happen quickly.

“The light at the end of tunnel is an opening, not an oncoming train,” Moorhead said. “We’re going to get there.”