Last year when Alabama defeated Mississippi State, 31-6, in Starkville, the Crimson Tide defense sacked Bulldogs starting quarterback Dak Prescott nine times. Late in the game it was time to pull Prescott (who is now starring for the Dallas Cowboys) and in came unknown Nick Fitzgerald. One could see that Fitzgerald was a physical runner, though he had just five carries for 24 yards.
On the other side was Alabama’s Jake Coker, not really utilized as a runner. He had one carry for six yards in last year’s game. At that time Jalen Hurts was just a name on the Alabama commitment list for the future.
Now things are different.
Fitzgerald has moved up to starter and the 6-5, 230-pound sophomore is not only the leading rusher for the Bulldogs, he ranks fifth in the Southeastern Conference with 135 carries for 839 yards, 6.2 yards per carry, with 8 rushing TDs.
On the Alabama side, Hurts took over as the starter following the season-opening game and has led the Crimson Tide to a 9-0 record (6-0 in the SEC) and ranks second to tailback Damien Harris in rushing for Bama. Hurts, who had 20 carries for 114 yards and the only touchdown in Alabama’s 10-0 win at LSU last week, has carried the ball 115 times (most on the team) for 635 yards (5.5 per carry) and 10 touchdowns.
This week Alabama hosts Mississippi State ((4-5 overall, 2-3 in SEC games) at 11 a.m. CST with ESPN televising the game.
Hurts has rushed for 100 or more yards in games against Ole Miss, Tennessee, and LSU. Fitzgerald has rushed for 100 ore more against South Carolina, UMass and in the last three games against Kentucky, Samford, and Texas A&M. He had 20 carries for 182 yards and 2 TDs last week in the Bulldogs 35-28 upset of the fourth-ranked Aggies.
The subject of running quarterbacks came up in Nick Saban’s weekly SEC Teleconference Wednesday.
“I think it’s the day and age of football that we play in right now,” Saban said. “I think a lot of the spread teams, and I think Dan (Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen, who previously was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Florida) was like this when he had (Tim) Tebow at Florida.
“We went through the Wildcat phase where we ran some of these plays with a running back, but you knew that that guy couldn’t pass.
“Now, we’re running some of the same kind of plays as part of the spread that are actually with a quarterback.. When you have a talented guy that’s big and strong and athletic and can throw it pretty well, too, it makes it a very challenging thing to do to be able to play both of those things.
“That’s certainly what Mississippi State has been able to do, and this guy (Fitzgerald) has done a great job of doing that. He’s really done a good job for them. And they’ve gotten pretty good at it, and they know what they’re doing.”
Saban said there are differences in the way Hurts is used at Alabama and Fitzgerald at State. “I think both teams have their own style of how they do it,” he said. “There’re some similarities, but also some differences.
“We’re focused on trying to get our quarterback to be a little more complete in what he needs to do to be an all-around good quarterback. We’re certainly trying to make progress with a young player and he’s responding in a positive way, so we’re going to continue to work on that.”
As for this week’s game, Saban said, “I think it’s really important for our guys to stay focused on the task at hand. Mississippi State’s really playing well now. They had a great win last week against a good Texas A&M team and played really well. I think they’re playing their best football of the season.
“Coming off an emotional game for us, we need to put that behind us and really stay focused on what we need to do to try to play well and execute in this game. We certainly have things that we need to work on and that’s what we’re trying to emphasize with our players.
“I think this team has shown a lot of resiliency all year long in terms of their competitive character and continue to focus on the next play, not lose their focus. I think that’s important, but I also think that some of the adversity that we’ve created for ourselves is what we would like to eliminate in terms of being a little bit more consistent in the execution of what we do, which may be helpful to us not putting ourselves in some of those situations that we’ve been in.”