Redshirt freshman Fitzgerald’s feelings were understandable. Remember, he arrived on Mississippi State’s campus in December 2013 in time for a week of Liberty Bowl practice. A true freshman spring and fall, another spring camp, one more preseason…if not forever that is an awfully long wait.
So running out the clock in Hattiesburg two weeks ago only whetted the appetite. Fortunately Fitzgerald knew his chance was coming in game-three, as told by his coach.
“Once we finally got up, got a comfortable lead, they were going to put us in. Just no reservations, go out there and see what you can do. And we got in there.”
‘We’ as in he and classmate QB Elijah Staley, who had yet to play at all. Northwestern State was the obvious opportunity for each. But it would be Fitzgerald going first, as in taking over at halftime.
Northwestern State did delay Fitzgerald a little longer stepping onto Scott Field for-real, with an eight-minute touchdown drive to open the third quarter. Mississippi State responded somewhat faster, beginning with a one-yard Fitzgerald keeper at center.
“They were like well, we kind of want you to get the nerves out if you have any. Once you get hit you have to wake up.” The advice wasn’t really necessary. Fitzgerald has a healthy self-confidence anyway for a second-fall frosh, and having run more than throw in high school contact is never an issue.
A 25-yard throw to WR Donald Gray was followed by a Fitzgerald keeper down to the Demon three. On second down he called his own number around left end for his first college touchdown. On a run.
The next time on the field, it was his arm doing the damage. That and Gray’s fast feet, as Fitzgerald evaded trouble twice and, going to his left, fired.
“I saw Donald just beat his guy right off the line and I got by a guy, he was five steps behind him. I said I’m going to see if I’ve got enough arm to get it out there.”
He did. The in-stride catch was good for a 49-yard touchdown play. For good measure Fitzgerald got to complete another series with a three-yard keeper touchdown, meaning he was responsible for three scores in his first real day of play.
“It was definitely a great time.”
STALEY THE COURSE: The irony is that while Fitzgerald got his first college points running, it was Staley doing it on a pass play. The other redshirt freshman got the series after Fitzgerald’s first and needed three plays to go 79 yards. RB Dontavian Lee got the first 24 with a carry.
But Staley followed with a 18-yard pass to WR Malik Dear, then hit WR Joe Morrow for the other 37 yard and his touchdown.
Between them the two young quarterbacks were just about perfect passes. Fitzgerald was 4-of-4 for 90 yards, Staley 2-of-3 for 55 and each threw their first collegiate touchdown passes. The one non-catch? Don’t blame the passer, Coach Dan Mullen said.
“The receiver ran the wrong route.” Meaning redshirt frosh WR Jesse Jackson, apparently. Yet whatever the mistake, the play itself pleased Mullen maybe more than a completion. And that demanded explanation.
“Staley throws the ball on time and the receiver ran the wrong route. To me that was one of the best plays I saw of the day. How can that be one of the best plays? Because that’s a young guy trusting what he’s doing and doing what he’s supposed to be doing throwing it.”
The work by both freshmen could be considered the first public competition between two contenders for the starting job in 2016. A three-way battle with true junior Damian Williams redshirting, that is. For now though, Mullen needed to get first Fitzgerald and then Staley as much live-fire play as practical ahead of resumed SEC season.
“It was fantastic to get both of them into t eh game, give them a little bit of confidence moving forward. Because you never know when that number is going to be called.”
STARTING SHUMPIN’: So, about the notion that first series are scripted? Dan Mullen had to haul out a well-worn play card when asked if play-plans called for RB Ashton Shumpert to touch the ball for the first four snaps.
Looking it over… “We had the ball on the wrong hash, not exactly where we wanted it for one of the pass plays in the first four plays. Then we had the third-and-short or something like that, second-and-short, so I just wanted to get first downs. So I got off my script a little bit.”
But all was well. Shumpert ran for 13, 7, and 5 yards around a one-yard catch that for all intents was a long handoff. It certainly had the Demons looking for more of the same, which let WR Gabe Myles get loose for a 49-yard touchdown pass play.
So adjusting the script wasn’t a problem. “It’s just where the ball was,” Mullen said. “We got those plays called pretty quickly afterwards.”
Shumpert ended up with 55 rushing yards, two behind Lee’s 57 and just ahead of Prescott’s 54. It likely surprised everyone given all the air acts that State did net 275 rushing yards.
“I really did want to go run the ball a lot and I think we did that,” Mullen said. “We ran it 37 times which is good and we only threw it 18 times. But a lot of times they were giving us looks where they put everybody at the line of scrimmage, you just had to throw the ball.”
GOING GRAY: It wasn’t lack of ability which kept WR Donald Gray from catching anything in his first two games. It was lack of snaps. In week-three though the junior college star became a target.
And maybe, a budding senior college star? Because Gray turned four receptions into 140 yards, including a couple of truly highlight grabs. “He made two big-time catches,” Mullen said.
The first made Gray a part of program history. His 45-yard reception let Prescott become the all-time passing yardage leader. Oh, and it was with a defender hanging on his back and drawing a flag just in case the ball got away. It didn’t, and on the next snap WR Gabe Myles ran it in for a six-yard touchdown.
“An unbelievable catch, I mean that was pretty special,” said Mullen.
Gray probably felt his other was more special. Because this time he did the scoring, running under a rainbow from QB Nick Fitzgerald and heading on to the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown.
Though plenty other receivers, and backs, caught balls in the win it was Gray stepping to the fore…and likely earning a higher place in the receiver rotation.
KEEPING CALM: He really, truly meant to play the role of cool coach during a routine home non-conference win. The third quarter though cost Mullen his cool.
When Northwestern State ground-out a 14-play touchdown drive and used up half the period, the head coach let his defensive staff have an earful. For that matter the sideline microphones heard plenty, too.
“I really wanted to stay calm today on the sidelines. I don’t know if you guys saw me (all did). Just to coach and not yell and scream. But that one drive got me a little frustrated.”
Just a little. In the big picture one drive changed nothing about the outcome beyond stats and score. And as Mullen reminded, there were positives on this side of the squad.
“Overall I think we played well on defense. One- of-13 on third down, that’s excellent defense. Red zone possessions I think we tightened-up.”
But the negatives nagged, such as not creating a turnover (State had two, one in the kicking game). And that single extended drive just struck the wrong nerve.
“If we’re going to win in conference play you can’t give up 8-minute drives to start the second half. Those are momentum changing, game changing things we have to fix.”
DAK ATTACK: Ho, hum. Another game, another record in Dak Prescott’s account. OK so this was a biggie: the career passing yardage mark. It’s his at last.
Prescott came in needing 182 yards’ worth of caught passes to surpass Wayne Madkin’s total from 1998-2001. Only two quarters were required. In fact after one period Prescott already had 119 yards. A 48-yard connection with WR Fred Gray got him in easy striking range, before Prescott lost the handle in a pile-up.
When given his next chance, Prescott did it in a big way. His high heave was caught by Gray for the 45-yarder, blasting the record away. For good measure Prescott ran a hurry-up series to end the half capped by a roll-out option play. When the safety opted to let RB Brandon Holloway go by and chase Prescott, the flip for six yards scored a 46th career touchdown pass. Which extends a record he already held.
Prescott extended a string of passes without picks to 150, only throwing 11 balls with ten caught. He now has thrown for a touchdown in 17 consecutive games, obviously a Bulldog record too. Prescott has 21 of them whether game, season, and career.
Asked what all the records and standards mean about Prescott, Mullen mused a moment. “Probably a pretty good player?” But seriously…
“Holding all those records is unbelievable and fantastic. And he’s a program-changing player, not just in what he does on the field but what he does off the field.”
INJURY UPDATING: During the week S Kendrick Market was seen leaving the Seal Center with a wrap on his leg, covering a cast on the foot. Immobilizing the foot was a snap decision during the week, Mullen said, who stressed this has nothing to do with the Achilles injury that ended Market’s season in the Egg Bowl.
“His foot was bothering him. If we cast him Sunday or Monday it’s going to be better for the big picture of the season. So we decided to do that and hopefully give him ten days in a cast. And we expect him back this week to play, it’s all very precautionary.”
Not coming back this season is SN Winston Chapman. He tore a knee ligament in last week’s game with LSU. Mullen said Chapman wasn’t ruled-out for the season initially.
“They thought he could still have snapped, possibly in a couple of weeks. But he wanted to have the surgery and end the season.”