STARKVILLE – Ask Joe Moorhead if his Mississippi State football program has taken a step back in his second season as head coach, and this is what he'll say.
"I don't necessarily say a step back. I'd say it's a combination of things. We'll continue to look at them and get better."
"It's recruiting. It's player development. It's coaching. It's execution," he said. "There's a lot of things we have to do from an entire program standpoint to cut that gap on and off the field. That's what we're working towards every day, to bridge that gap."
A structure as sturdy as The Golden Gate Bridge probably couldn't "bridge that gap" at the moment.
Mississippi State just got drubbed by one of the SEC West's best teams, again, in a 38-7 loss to No. 4 Alabama. The Bulldogs have now lost by three or more touchdowns to all three of the division's top teams.
That's a combined score of 130-43 for those whose brains are too worn out from trying to comprehend how lopsided the first half of Saturday's game was. The Bulldogs trailed 35-7 at halftime. The second half was merely a formality, especially with the injury to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Most people didn't expect Mississippi State to win the game. That's fine. But the Bulldogs should have been slightly competitive in the first half, right?
They weren't. Not even by a long shot.
The scoreboard showed a 14-point lead for Alabama just two minutes in. State misfired on a planned pooch kick on the opening kickoff of the game. The kick was too short, and the Bulldogs jumped offsides, too. That left a 55-yard field for Tagovailoa, and he only needed five plays to lead a scoring drive.
Then MSU graduate senior quarterback Tommy Stevens threw an interception on State's first play from scrimmage, and Tagovailoa flicked a touchdown pass on Bama's next play.
"A team like Alabama is known to pour it on you when they can," MSU junior linebacker Erroll Thompson said.
Ah, yes. That familiar thing where Mississippi State spots a team a few scores right out of the gates. Remember how that Auburn game started back in September? The Tigers led 21-0 "before the band even [got] in their seats," as Moorhead said himself.
Auburn was a team Mississippi State beat pretty handily last year, 23-9. The Bulldogs hung tough with Alabama in a 24-0 defeat in Tuscaloosa, too. A season ago, Mississippi State only lost to LSU 19-3 in Death Valley.
So that begs the question again: has this Mississippi State team – one that stands at 4-6 and needs to win its last two games of the regular season to qualify for a bowl game – taken a step back from the team that earned bowl eligibility with eight wins last year?
The defense is much worse. That has been well documented. And as frustrating as that is for State fans, the dropoff was bound to be a large one. Menacing defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, now in the NFL, was standing on the sideline Saturday because the Tennessee Titans were on a bye week.
Losing a guy like that – in addition to two other players taken in the first round of the NFL Draft – makes a difference.
"Losing three first-rounders is not a thing that's easy to do, but it is what it is," Thompson said. "We have a lot of youth out there. A lot of guys with a promising future."
That much might be true. But what about Moorhead's offense?
Two weeks after Mississippi State's highest yardage output of the season against Arkansas, the Bulldogs nearly had their worst offensive output of the year. State accumulated 270 total yards against Alabama. The worst performance was 267 yards gained against Tennessee.
The passing attack has been anemic too many times during Moorhead's tenure. Saturday was no different. Alabama came into the game allowing 203.8 yards per game through the air and 25 points per game in SEC play. Tommy Stevens and company could only muster 82 passing yards and seven points Saturday.
Moorhead said Alabama game-planned well for the Mississippi State offense. Based on the Bulldogs' average of 180 passing yards per game, which ranks No. 11 in the SEC and 104th nationally, then everybody else must be game-planning well for the Bulldogs, too.
At some point, something has to change.
More: Tua Tagovailoa torches Mississippi State but exits with season-ending injury
CJ Morgan: Mississippi State junior carted off the field with season-ending injury
'It sucks': Alabama vs Mississippi State marred by injuries to Tua Tagovailoa, others
Contact Tyler Horka at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tbhorka on Twitter. To read more of Tyler's work, subscribe to the Clarion Ledger today!