The job is officially taken. “It feels great,” said Nick Fitzgerald.
It should. Not just for Mississippi State’s official top Dog triggerman, but for the offensive staff and squad. The spring, summer, and preseason of uncertainty wasn’t a bad thing in terms of keeping competition intense, in pushing Fitzgerald, Damian Williams, and Nick Tiano to keep raising their games.
Still a sense of certainty has to help everyone involved. Even better is how third-year sophomore Fitzgerald handled his first full game as Bulldog quarterback.
“You look at what he did, he set a school record for rushing as a quarterback,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “He made good reads and the line blocked well. Hopefully he looks at the things he did well and continues to do those things well.”
Yeah, setting a position-record is doing something really, really well. For his first SEC start, all Fitzgerald did was gallop for 195 yards on 17 carries. The total blew-away John Bond’s prior position-standard of 163 yards in the 1980 Egg Bowl.
“But it wasn’t like he was making dynamic runs and making seven people miss,” Mullen said. Which is mostly true because on the whole when Fitzgerald took off there was clear ground or just one South Carolina defender to beat. That might be more impressive in fact, since he wasn’t scrambling in and out of traffic all the time. Oh, and he never got caught for a loss, all evening.
“I mean, I just ran the ball,” Fitzgerald said. “I had great blocking, people throwing their bodies out there and I was following them.”
The passing wasn’t shabby either. 19-of-29 for 178 yards and a couple of touchdowns is a good SEC evening’s work for a veteran, much less a still-new starter. There was the goal-line interception after a South Carolina turnover, of course. And Fitzgerald’s most dramatic touchdown toss ought also have been picked off, had Bulldog TE Jordan Thomas not out-muscled the defender by an even 100 pounds to take the ball away and score.
From Mullen’s standpoint the game was just about a best-of-all-worlds. State got the SEC win, a new quarterback made plays and gained confidence…but also got away with errors that will serve well to keep Fitzgerald developing. Along with the rest of the quarterbacks, too.
“If you execute well, I think you can see that he will have success,” Mullen said. “He can look at the things where he made some mistakes and not make those mistakes again. I’m sure he will make some mistakes on Saturday night down at LSU but hopefully the mistakes he’s already made he corrects.”
Right. Saturday in Tiger Stadium is Fitzgerald’s next assignment. Beyond the obvious upgrade in intensity of leaving home for the SEC’s legendary venue—and an evening game at that—he will be reading a defense that might not have as many seniors and juniors as South Carolina…but is far bigger, faster, and more aggressive.
Fortunately, minutes after scoring his first SEC success and setting a record Fitzgerald was already evaluating himself. “There’s never a place I don’t need to improve in, the team doesn’t need to improve in. We have a big road game so that’s what I’m gearing up for.”
Mississippi State can get to gearing with knowledge who is calling cadence. Now to be clear, Mullen made his own call to ride Fitzgerald all of game-two on the day following a lost opener. The team knew early in the week as well and word leaked around campus and town accordingly.
“To go with one guy I thought at this point was what was best for us,” Mullen said. Game-one workhorse and elder quarterback Damian Williams was given the word directly by the coach, too, and responded as Mullen expected.
“Damian did an awesome job getting ready for the game. He was put in a very difficult situation and handed it very well.” Williams also understood that, having graded Champion against South Alabama, he’d done nothing to lose the job.
Nor does Fitzgerald claim credit for the team bouncing-back to take the SEC opener. It was collective, he said. “It had a lot to do with the intensity at practice. We cranked that way up and it kind of gave us the edge coming out.”
The Bulldogs need any sort of edge(s) they can create this Saturday. Of course Fitzgerald himself has shown a knack for getting to an edge whether called keeper or scramble. Williams did much the same in week-one.
But take away the quarterbacks and their 299 rushing yards, and State has just 230 other rushing yards in two games. And almost 60 of THAT has been provided by receivers, not backs.
The 2015 offense, built around Dak Prescott’s own running and strong arm with a great receiver corps, was clearly pass-first. For 2016 the ground game is supposed to be more along the lines of Mullen’s early seasons. Supposed to be.
The lack of a Boobie Dixon or Vick Ballard is one reason State’s rushing attack has struggled so far. In fact, Mullen said a reason he settled on Fitzgerald was specifically to add more running threat as he is superior in this aspect to Williams. Mullen even says, and most agree already, Fitzgerald is both a bit faster and even more explosive as a runner, albeit not as physical.
Yet Mullen doesn’t want to make Fitzgerald, or any of his quarterbacks, the first option in this ground game. As for why none of the six (four activated so far) backs have stepped out in front, that’s as much the circumstances and situations in the first two games.
“We want to be able to run the football with a young team. And you’re going to say we want to get the running backs more. But we played a couple of different running backs and a bunch of different guys that ran the ball besides him.” Guys like receivers Fred Ross and Keith Mixon and, surely to come, Malik Dear.
Mullen still predicts that as this season develops true backs will move to the top of the rushing charts and Fitzgerald can be more selective or situational. “I do think you’ll see more of that. We want to be able to run the football back there, you have to be able to run the football to be successful.”
As for the big Bulldog picture, one clear quarterback is a key to success on offense. Fitzgerald has passed his first real test. Now, on to the next.
“He plays with confidence,” Mullen said. “You’re going to make mistakes, but let’s respond from it and come back and not make the same mistake again.”