How Giraffes, Gazelles, and Joe Moorhead Run Mississippi State’s Offensive Scheme

How many of us sit in the stands or in my case, the press box, and say to ourselves while watching a game, “this isn’t that hard, I could do that!” I must say, I would have to find myself guilty of that many times over. So when Coach Joe Moorhead offered the Mississippi State beat an opportunity to sit down with him and go inside his play-calling and installation, it was a chance that couldn’t be passed up.

The setup was simple, Moorhead would take us through two concepts, one run, one pass play. You might think, that’s awfully simply, how long could that take? Moorhead spoke on the run play for a full 45 minutes, a simple inside zone that is the bread and butter of his run-pass option based offense. The minutiae of how each position must react, where everybody is supposed to go, the decisions that have to be made pre-snap and once the play has begun, you begin to get a feel for just how complex this offense is, and even more so, why it causes so many problems for defenses when it’s run effectively.

You see the beginnings of the play here, with the term “Gazelle” meaning the run goes left, and “Giraffe” sending it to the right. The R’s and L’s are the giveaway, that tells the team how to line up and where the play is designed to flow to. The first letter “G” contains an instruction as well, it tells the tight end that if he has no man over him, he is to cut back and graze the defensive end on the backside of the play, leaving him to run a route out into the flats. Once the play is called, success will be determined by the quarterback and his ability to read what the defense is giving him.

Moorhead had two different keys for his quarterbacks to read in the inside zone play, firstly, can I see the defensive end’s numbers or the decal on his helmet? If the end is squared up and you can read his jersey number, that’s the key to hand the ball off, if his body is turned in such a way you can see the side of his helmet, the read is keep. Moorhead went a bit deeper into that process in the clip above, where a quarterback who has enough faith in his own ability can make a decision to keep if he believes he can get around the end due to superior athleticism or simply the way the defensive player is leaning at the moment of truth.

It wouldn’t be a run-pass option with the ability to throw the ball as well. Here, Moorhead takes us through what he labels as a “FAB” tag, allowing for a couple of quick pass options based off what the defense shows pre-snap.

Here you see the quarterback can look at the wideout to the weak side, and then based off his alignment, can make a decision to throw a quick out. If that’s not available, the QB can then go through the handoff-keep option, or if he sees his tight end is open, can pull and throw quickly out in the flat to what should be an open man. Here is that concept in practice from Mississippi State’s game against Louisiana Tech.

This is near perfect execution of Moorhead’s concept, the throw is quick and on time, there’s nobody within five yards of the receiver, and the blockers downfield have set up to create a big play. Nick Fitzgerald makes the right read twice, deciding to keep rather than hand off, then throwing quickly when he realized both perimeter defenders were crashing down on him.

Going back to the run concept itself, here it is in action against Kansas State, a game that saw the Bulldogs pile up nearly 400 yards on the ground.

You could argue that Fitzgerald misses a pre-snap read, that the quick out was open and available to him, but with the result of the play being a touchdown, you can’t really squabble with the results. You see how well the Bulldog offensive line was able to swallow up Kansas State’s defenders, and then the explosiveness of Kylin Hill to burst through the hole and into the end zone. Once again, this is Moorhead’s offense at peak efficiency.

We switched over to the passing game, again looking at a basic pass play from Moorhead’s extensive playbook. We were allowed to browse through the playbook binder, no photos allowed unfortunately, but it was easily a couple of hundred pages long, detailing every formation, play, and protection available to Moorhead based on a given opponent. In this pass concept, Moorhead explains each route and what it is seeking to accomplish.

This concept, as well as the “FAB” play, are designed to create what Moorhead calls “speed in space”, getting the ball to a fast player with at least a step on the nearest defender. The quarterback must make his pre-snap read which could result in a deep ball should the Z receiver find himself in man coverage. Beyond that, the play is designed to get a crossing route open with the majority of traffic going in the opposite direction with the basic and post routes going the other way. Here’s that play in action.

The crosser in this case is Stephen Guidry, and the defense does exactly what Moorhead wants here, playing the deep post route and leaving nobody in front of Guidry as he comes across the field. Fitzgerald hits him in stride for a big play with a lot of run after the catch yardage. Here’s the same play, but in this case, Fitzgerald has the basic route open to him in the middle of the field.

So two plays, and Moorhead spoke for over an hour on the basic ins and outs of both of them. It gives you a real feel for how much work the coaching staff is putting into the NCAA mandated 20 hours per week allotted for practice. It also explains why Moorhead said all audibles come through him, as he works well over 100 hours per week during the season scouting for tendencies and weaknesses. In finality, it was all a bit humbling, as I certainly learned a lot about a sport I felt comfortable in my knowledge in. But what about this season? With the Bulldogs heading to the podium at SEC Media Days in just over a week, there wasn’t much talk about 2019, but Moorhead did say from a terminology and knowledge standpoint, incoming transfer quarterback Tommy Stevens should be familiar with “85-90%” of the currently playbook, which would give him a huge head start from where Nick Fitzgerald was a season ago. We’ll have to wait to see if the Bulldogs can find more perfectly executed plays like the ones Moorhead had on film for us Wednesday.