Soph Quarterback Goes the Distance in 27-14 SEC Victory

STARKVILLE– Dan Mullen scripted series on opening day. For the SEC opener, the coach just wrote Nick Fitzgerald’s name at quarterback. “And I told him last Sunday.”

It was the correct call. Fitzgerald took every offensive snap to both start and finish Mississippi State’s 27-14 victory over visiting South Carolina. The win balanced the Bulldogs record overall at 1-1, same as the Gamecocks who left 1-1 both overall and SEC. This was Mississippi State's first victory over South Carolina since 1999, ending a seven-loss string.

Mullen said he decided to start with and stay with Fitzgerald the day-after losing to South Alabama. And, he told both the sophomore and junior Damian Williams so privately. Fitzgerald, who went only two true first-quarter series on opening day, didn’t celebrate.

“I took it very seriously. I knew I was going to get the snaps so I had to prepare even harder than I did last week.”

He used most of his snaps well, too. Fitzgerald was 19-of-29 passing for 178 yards and two passes, with one interception and a couple of close calls. But it was his superior running skills that prompted Mullen’s choice. It made the difference against a veteran Gamecock defense.

Fitzgerald kept, called or forced, 17 times. None of the runs lost yards; they gained 195, which isn’t just a 11.5 average. It was the most-ever rushing yards by a Bulldog quarterback.

“I just ran the ball. I had great blocking, people throwing their bodies out there and I was following them.”

That under-stated his own efforts as Fitzgerald created big gains out of seeming-nothing. His faster footwork was crucial in converting some first-half third downs that allowed State to build a 24-0 lead.

“The train kept rolling,” WR Fred Ross said. “Nick got in and did a great job, running the ball and throwing the ball he looked good.”

Most of the good was in that dominating first half, which probably should have seen the Bulldogs lead by even more. A lightning delay during intermission did more to cool down the home team, as all the second-half points State mustered came from PK Westin Graves.

South Carolina made their own halftime adjustments, primarily changing from veteran starting quarterback Perry Orth to freshman Brandon McIlwaine. The younger Gamecock was more creative under pressure and made enough plays to direct two touchdown drives. But, those extended series each ate up lots of clock so south Carolina never truly threatened to come all the way back.

Mullen said his squad didn’t handle the extra hour’s delay as well. “They have to learn to crank it back up and keep that energy alive. But also give South Carolina credit.”

State earned all the first half credit. Defensively, the Dogs crushed USC’s ground game with just 16 net yards by halftime. Orth was scrambling for his health too, sacked twice and 9-of-17 passing for 83 yards with an interception by CB Jamal Peters, a new rotation cornerback.

“The mood was we were ready to unleash on them,” DT A.J. Jefferson said. “The first half we were flying around, making plays, having fun.”

The fun really began with a first-series sack by V Johnathan Calvin of Orth. Getting the ball, Fitzgerald directed a seven-snap touchdown series. On 3rd-and-4 at the Gamecock six, Fitzgerald stood in long enough for WR Fred Ross to slide open for touchdown at 11:00.

Fitzgerald’s biggest run, a 74-yard sideline scamper to the USC five, went wasted on downs. South Carolina answered with their only drive of the first half, and that one still was stopped to force a 55-yard field goal that was short.

The key play of State’s second scoring drive was again Fitzgerald, escaping pressure on 3rd-and-15 to get to the marker. He converted another third down throwing to Ross, then gave Ross the ball a second time…

…on an option pass at the 17-yard line. Ross could have thrown back to his quarterback; instead he sailed it to the end zone where WR Donald Gray ran under it at 12:15.

Peters picked off Orth on the next USC series, then DT Jeffery Simmons forced a fumble the next with Calvin recovering. Fitzgerald had his one turnover in-between, not seeing T.J. Holloman sitting at the goal line on a throw at TE Jordan Thomas. South Carolina made no use of the mistake though.

Better for State, the 16-yard punt return by Ross had 15 more yards added for a personal foul to spot the ball on the 36. Fitzgerald ran for ten, then hit WR Gabe Myles on consecutive right-sideline strikes to the three-yard line. Setting up in a true I-set for the first time, Fitzgerald faked and used Holloway’s block to lob for TE Jordan Thomas. Gamecock D.J. Smith ought have had an interception but at 5-11, 195 he couldn’t keep the 6-5, 295 Thomas from taking the ball away for touchdown at 3:21.

State got the ball back at 1:21 and with all three timeouts. Ross broke a tackle to convert third down, and Gray turned a crossing route into 22 more yards to the USC 30. Myles was tackled in the end zone waiting for Fitzgerald’s throw but the free first down came with just 0:04 left. So Graves knocked through the 27-yarder for the 24-0 halftime margin.

“We had some missed opportunities to get points,” Mullen said. “Two of our possessions the first half we came away empty.” But it was hard to argue with a 324 to 90 edge in yardage, and a shutout.

South Carolina broke that up with five seconds left in the third quarter, as McIlwaine stayed upright long enough to find hot-target A.J. Turner. Who, MSU coverage had lost, leaving him free to go 18 yards for the touchdown. If the Bulldogs didn’t answer that entirely, using up 5:36 on 13 plays to get Graves a chip shot assured enough margin.

The Gamecocks got their other points at 2:37 on a pass to K.C. Crosby. The on-sides kick was knocked out of bounds and Fitzgerald ran out the rest of the clock. If the flat second half bothered the Bulldogs, it did not show in the locker room.

“Big smiles everywhere,” Jefferson said.  “It’s something everybody wanted to do, just win.”

RB Brandon Holloway had 48 of State’s 290 rushing yards on 15 carries. Ross was the top target with 56 yards on six catches, while Gray had 54 yards on four balls.

LB Richie Brown led all tacklers with 10 stops, two for losses. Jefferson scored a pair of sacks while freshman phenom Simmons had 1.5 sacks along with Calvin and Jung.

“It’s a good victory,” Brown said. “Obviously we expected to win.”

Of course State also had expected to open with a non-conference win last week. The loss rattled Bulldog Country, but not the Bulldogs themselves. And it helped eighth-year coach Mullen and his staff make some decisions that should pay off in the longer haul. Just winning a SEC game was a good start.

“It was electric,” Fitzgerald said. “As you can imagine, people were hyped.”

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