Fitzgerald was there, of course. “It was electric. It was crazy.” It was, well, huge, when the #3 ranked Bulldogs hosted and whipped #2 Auburn, a victory that vaulted Mississippi State to the top of the national rankings for the first time ever.
As a redshirting freshman Fitzgerald didn’t play that epic afternoon. He was dressed out and available…and able to enjoy the entire experience.
“The Dog Walk, pregame, you could just feel it. The tension was crazy, electric.”
Well, two years later there will be tension again on Scott Field for the 2016 rematch. Neither Mississippi State (2-2, 1-1 SEC) nor Auburn (3-2, 1-1) are ranked this time around. The stakes are still high, maybe even more intense since again this Division matchup sets up as the pivot point of each program’s regular season. The winner stays in the West conversation and on a good bowl track. The loser…won’t.
So instead of dialing it all the way back during open date Fitzgerald started his own scouting. “All week. Definitely.”
What the Bulldog quarterback saw couldn’t have been fun viewing.
“They’re definitely a solid SEC defense. Really, really strong up the middle, their d-line and linebackers. This is going to be one we have to work hard for. Running the ball we have to move some bodies, throwing the ball there will be a lot of one-on-one plays we have to make. But I’m feeling pretty confident.”
Sure, starting quarterbacks are supposed to show confidence. At the same time Fitzgerald is earning that right as he grows in this premier position. His first month at number-one certainly showed mixed results, same as the team’s record…not entirely a coincidence of course.
Yet when Fitzgerald is on his game the potential for production only grows. Much like himself.
Take this third-fall sophomore’s approach to the open date. “I think the bye week came at a good time, to regroup and get ready for the schedule coming up. We’ve got a lot of SEC play coming up obviously so it was a good time to work on ourselves a little bit.”
Work on himself, first and foremost. Remember that Fitzgerald ended his first month as a SEC starter by dominating a non-conference opponent. In a NFL stadium, too. Against a struggling Massachusetts squad Fitzgerald threw for 299 yards and rushed for another 110.
With Fitzgerald taking every snap, the Bulldog offense finished a long stride shy of 600 total yards. This was an excellent way to end one month ahead of the season’s only break, which Fitzgerald said was put to good personal use.
“It was more a time of polishing some things up. Working on some footwork and drops, cleaning up some meshes, some timing with some receivers.”
That timing, and other things, was lacking in Fitzgerald’s debut as a starter. He worked two series, six snaps against South Alabama. How he handled that stumble might prove as key to development as anything since?
“It just happens,” Fitzgerald said. “There were plays to be made I didn’t make, I got over it after the game.” Easier said than done, maybe, but keeping the right attitude was critical.
“I kind of wrote that off as a bad game, keep going and there’s no looking back.” Interestingly, Fitzgerald now has applied the same approach to his most recent success.
“If you play well you have a great feeling. We had a big win on the road. But we knew we’d have a tough SEC opponent so we went into the bye week getting ready for what’s going to come.”
Indeed, there’s no comparing what Fitzgerald faced at Foxboro to what he will see across the line of scrimmage Saturday. This will be his first snap in a Mississippi State-Auburn game, too, with Fitzgerald accepting responsibility for extending a two-year winning string in the annual rivalry.
Yes, he knows. That Tiger defense sees a target instead of a 7 on Fitzgerald’s jersey. It’s just part of being a SEC starter.
“I’m sure they’ll probably try to heat it up a little bit. But I’m confident in my blocking and my guys are going to get open.” From there, it’s up to the quarterback to make the plays…as well as the home crowd to recreate a little of the old craziness?
“Hopefully we get that same feeling on Saturday.”