A pass is caught and a career path changed

Part 2 of our summer series What if? Mississippi state scenarios.

2018 – What if? Osirus Mitchell sticks to passport against Florida

It was a program for wounded bulldogs Joe Moorhead inherited. Not so much on the roster and certainly not on the defensive side with an all-time unit. Even if the offense had a quarterback still healing, he had enough playmakers for SEC competition.

No, wounds were emotional. For any brave conversations after an upset win in the Gator Bowl under interim management; and a spring and preseason with their new staff, this team was still stung by Dan Mullen’s kind of exit. The hiring of another successful Principal Program Coordinator gave everyone just a little peace of mind. Any reprieve would be shorter and more fragile.

Now, the first three weeks have been enthralling as State totaled 150 points against SF Austin, Kansas State and Louisiana. That defense wasn’t actually razor sharp at the start, but with wins in hand, some relaxation and substitutions were natural. The real trials were ahead.

The state of Mississippi failed. Poorly.

Much of the Moorhead momentum instantly faded into an Ugg Lee defeat in Kentucky. Aside from a touchdown midway through the second quarter after a 15-shot streak, offense was lacking. The unsupported defense wore down late in a 28-7 loss that shook everyone.

Quiet. Had State rallied to beat Florida, that could have been written off as a season one stumble. What happened was pretty much worst-case scenario, a grinding game that would be boring if the emotions weren’t so intense. “The game meant a lot to a lot of people,” said Defensive Tackle Jeffrey Simmons summarized.

Just not many points. Nine series gave Bulldogs a 6-3 lead in the third quarter. Then State had his perfect shot as the 3rd and 8th linebackers Erroll Thompson tipped a Florida pass cornerback Cam Dantzler caught.

From the 50 yard line, Moorhead immediately went for the kill. Recipient duped as Gator Safety Osirus Mitchell took off on the post pattern. “I got up and let go,” quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said. Inside the ten-yard line and with a defender behind him, Mitchell jumped to get the ball with both hands, three easy steps from the end zone.

He couldn’t hold on. It wasn’t the easiest catch, to be fair, but the kind of connection a recipient needs to make. The way the Dog D dominated a 13-3 lead would have been a killing shot. Instead, Florida got a reprieve. Perhaps this also drained the D somewhat as Florida finally got going and reached field goal range when Mullen reached into his gear pouch.

Safety Jon Abram was shaken up and during the injury break Mullen called a substitute attack Stefan Adegoke. A side pass froze coverage before the back dropped into the end zone for touchdown at 8:26. Simmons later wondered if Mullen had produced a similar gadget piece Georgia used to burn him in 2017.

Florida extended their lead with a field goal and Mullen left a winner. Moorhead was shaken. That defense was heroic for the rest of the season and the offense saw better days for an 8-4 regular season and finally a spot in the Outback Bowl. But a loss there continued to lead to shaky support. With a draft-eviscerated defense, 2019 was a scramble just to get bowling again. And losing again after a chaotic bowl camp that sealed the coach’s fate.

Still. Was this the necessary outcome? National esteem for coordinator Moorhead was genuine, and his offense a statistic success… except for that four-game, three-loss streak (at LSU was the other after beating Auburn the hard way). In many minds, that was all the evidence needed to show that a poor fit had been enforced.

But what if Mitchell holds onto what might be the best deep ball Fitzgerald has ever fired? The defender fell down and nothing was between Mitchell and the goal line. Florida was practically begging for a KO and a double-digit deficit would have done it.

Just hit Dan Mullen on the former home pitch with players he had recruited and 2018 is playing out very differently. So also in 2019 with a much more confident coach and a firmer grip on the program. Himself, by the way (ref: post-Tennessee meltdown). There might still have been a tutorgate, but it would have cited student-athlete indiscretions rather than further evidence of lack of team control.

Well, maybe Moorhead’s later health issues would have surfaced at State anyway, so there’s that qualifier. We will also never know how another coach would have dealt with the Covid year. Nevertheless, after only two seasons, you would not have had to change coaches or offense and start almost completely from scratch. Oh, and Moorhead was already 2-0 in Egg Bowls.

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