Moorhead soaks in first game as State head football coach

MSU football coach Joe Moorhead, left, smiles as he is approached by Kylin Hill.
Staff Writer

Saturday felt much like a normal spring football event for most people associated with Mississippi State.

For first-year head coach Joe Moorhead, it was an all-new experience.

Moorhead has been in charge of the Bulldogs for the last five months. He’s recruited. He’s organized practices. He’s done all the things head coaches do. He finally got a taste of game day Saturday though when MSU held its annual Maroon and White Game at Davis Wade Stadium in front of an announced spring-game-record crowd of 36,789.

“It was surreal in a lot of ways,” Moorhead said. “I’ve heard all about the cowbells and the fans and the Dawg Walk. You walk out here and start in the morning and the day is going 100 miles per hour. The next thing you know, you blink and it’s pregame. Next thing, the game is going. I think I’ll get the chance to reflect on all this a little bit, but this is what coaches dream about – to get to be a head coach in the SEC.”

Moorhead was hired late last year and brought with him the reputation of being an offensive mastermind whose trademark has been orchestrating explosive plays. He wasted little time living up to that billing Saturday as State took a deep shot on the very first play. The pass fell incomplete, but it was perhaps a sign of things to come this fall.

To hear Moorhead break it down, Saturday as a whole was much like that first incomplete pass. There were exciting moments. However there were let downs too in the midst of the Maroon squad’s 28-10 win over White.
“I think it was another snapshot or microcosm of our spring,” Moorhead said. “There was great effort and a lot of good things, but there were a million things to clean up, which is to be expected.”

Among the good was the performance of quarterback Keytaon Thompson. The sophomore-to-be had his plate loaded as he quarterbacked both the Maroon and White teams during the first half, but he answered the bell as he completed 26 of his 44 passes for 316 yards and a touchdown. He was intercepted twice.

Thompson also ran for 36 yards on seven attempts.

“He showed he’s able to beat you with his arm and beat you with his legs,” Moorhead said. “He made a bunch of very good throws and had some you’d like for him to throw away or get back on bad decisions.”
It all continued a busy spring for Thompson. MSU starting signal caller Nick Fitzgerald has been limited all spring as he recovers from the broken ankle he suffered in the Ole Miss game last season. That has allowed Thompson to get the majority of the live reps the last few weeks and has accelerated his growth as a player according to Moorhead.

“(At quarterback) it’s not a position, (but) it’s a lifestyle,” Moorhead said. “With Nick going through practice and just getting 7-on-7 reps and Keytaon getting the team reps, his maturation and where he is from day one until now (is obviously improved).”

Thompson said Saturday was just another step in his development.

“I was just learning the offense,” Thompson said. “Just getting smarter as a quarterback and learning what you can and can’t do.”

Something MSU quarterbacks might be doing a bit more of this fall, if Saturday is any indication, is throwing the football to slot receiver Austin Williams.

Williams had a standout spring game for the Bulldogs. The redshirt freshman caught five total passes for 86 yards and a touchdown.

“Slots in this system have always had a lot of success,” Moorhead said of Williams. “He’s savvy. He’s a good route runner. He understands coverages and he’s got great measurables. He’s a big kid, he can run fast and he can get in and out of cuts well, so when you combine all those things, it’s usually a recipe for success at the receiver position. He had a very good spring.”

Bulldog running backs had big days Saturday too, particularly Kylin Hill. Hill ran nine times for 50 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught three passes for 29 yards.

Hill said it was an example of how Moorhead’s offense fits the Bulldogs.

“The new offense allows everyone to utilize their talent more than the offense in the past,” Hill said. “The offense now is more explosive.”

On the defensive side of things, several Bulldogs had solid showings. Former Starkville High linebacker Willie Gay had four tackles, including half a tackle for loss and a forced fumble. Marquiss Spencer added four total tackles with a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.

Defensive backs Londyn Craft and Marcus Murphy both intercepted passes to end their springs on positive notes.

Now, for everyone, the focus of things shifts from spring football to offseason workouts.

It’ll still be a little more than four months before Moorhead can put his schemes to the test in a game that actually counts. He admits there is plenty of work to be done between now and then.

For now, Moorhead is talking like a man that is undefeated at Davis Wade Stadium because, despite mixed results on the field Saturday, he had a day to always remember.

“I just kind of took it all in and really appreciated it and am humbled by the experience,” Moorhead said.