Freshly hired by Mississippi State as its new football coach, Joe Moorhead liked what he saw while observing practices before a bowl game a year ago.
After working with the Bulldogs in the spring, he was convinced the Mississippi State defense had a chance to be “something special.”
Moorhead used those words when talking about the potential he saw in his team’s defense during a July interview with the SEC Network.
Today, Iowa coaches are working to figure out how to deal with an opposing defense in the Outback Bowl that has lived up to the preseason expectations of its first-year coach.
“When you see their defense is rated ahead of Alabama, it catches your eye,” Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz said Thursday when he joined Moorhead at a bowl contract signing event at Raymond James Stadium, the site of the New Year’s Day match-up between Iowa and Mississippi State.
Iowa’s challenge in the 11 a.m. game at Raymond James Stadium begins dealing with a defense that has dominated statistically throughout the Bulldogs’ 8-4 season.
Mississippi State leads the nation in scoring defense, surrendering 12 points per game.
The Bulldogs held seven of their opponents to their lowest point total of the season, frustrating offenses of six bowl qualifiers including top-ranked Alabama.
Opponents have scored only 12 touchdowns in 12 games against the Mississippi State defense, seven fewer than the next-best defense in the nation.
The Bulldogs have the only defense in the country which has not allowed a play from scrimmage of 50 yards or more this season.
Mississippi State has given up 26 plays of 25 yards or more, but that also ranks as the fewest allowed by a defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Those numbers illustrate the challenge that awaits the Hawkeyes as they prepare for an opponent that has adjusted to a new coaching staff this season after Dan Mullen left to become the head coach at Florida.
Moorhead is no stranger to Iowa.
He was the offensive coordinator at Penn State in 2016-17, calling the shots for the Nittany Lions in their 41-14 win over the Hawkeyes in 2016 and in Penn State’s 21-19 walk-off win at Kinnick Stadium in 2017.
“I’ve had the opportunity to coach against Iowa the last two years, and coach Ferentz’s program is a model of consistency,” Moorhead said. “They play good defense, have an excellent quarterback and a great tight end. This is a match-up of two good teams.”
Moorhead views his hiring of Bob Shoop as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator as a critical component to his team’s success.
Like Moorhead, Shoop worked under James Franklin at Penn State, although they did not work together there.
Franklin hired Shoop as his defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt in 2011, and he followed Franklin to the Big Ten in 2014, working two seasons at Penn State before taking on the same role at Tennessee in 2016.
He spent two seasons with the Volunteers before joining Moorhead at Mississippi State a year ago.
Moorhead and Shoop inherited a veteran group that Moorhead found a lot to like about even before he began to work with them.
“I was observing their bowl practices last year, and what I saw was a very competitive group that was willing to work hard, practice hard and showed me then that they were willing to do what it took to win,” Moorhead said.
The Bulldogs defense starts up front where a pair of NFL prospects, end Montez Sweat and tackle Jeffery Simmons, were named last week as first-team all-Southeastern Conference selections for a second straight year.
Sweat leads the SEC with 11 sacks among his 13.5 tackles for a loss while Simmons leads the Bulldogs with 14.5 tackles for a loss.
Mississippi State shifted from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive alignment this season under Shoop, although not unlike Iowa, the Bulldogs have played a 4-2-5 look more frequently as the season progressed.
The use of a safety in place of a linebacker — something Iowa has done against spread attacks with Big Ten defensive back of the year Amani Hooker — has been effective in creating a defensive edge for Mississippi State.
Shoop uses the so-called “star” position to blitz out of frequently at a spot where injuries have led to opportunities for three players. Johnathan Abram has filled the position after Brian Cole suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and Jaquarius Landrews was sidelined by an ankle problem.
Abram earned second-team all-conference honors after recording 7.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, five pass break ups, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this season.
Both Sweat and Abram are ranked by ESPN’s Todd McShay as top-30 prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Collectively, they have helped Mississippi State’s defense improve over a year ago when it allowed a respectable 20.9 points per game.
“For them to be able to elevate their level of production and performance, I had high expectations, but in a lot of ways they have probably exceeded my expectation level,” Moorhead said. “That is hard to do, because we have very high standards.”