First, the raw numbers. Six games into the season, his first as the starter and having opened every game but only finished four, Fitzgerald is 91-of-165 (55.2%) for 998 yards with eight touchdowns and three interceptions.
Flash back to 2013 and half-way of the season. Through his first six games, four of them starts after injury to senior Tyler Russell on opening day, Prescott was 63-of-116 (54.3%) for 890 yards with three touchdown passes and three interceptions.
Rushing? It’s about as close as Prescott had 457 yards compared to Fitzgerald’s 431. But Prescott already had eight touchdowns in six games; where Friday saw Fitzgerald’s first two running scores of the season.
Now to qualify. Prescott had much, much more experience going into his sophomore season, having played goal-line and conversion-down packages in 2012 and doing it with great efficiency. All Fitzgerald did as Prescott’s backup in 2015 was modest mop-up duty. So, he was much less-prepared and -experienced to step up into starting duty.
By same token Prescott wasn’t supposed to be the starter as a third-year soph, where Fitzgerald has had a couple of seasons to prepare for this opportunity.
Also, and this is more subjective but increasingly obvious…Prescott got to work behind a much, much better offensive line. Fitzgerald has been sacked, hurried, or flushed from a non-existent pocket more than his predecessor ever was.
But blocking or lack thereof didn’t entirely factor in one of the evening’s turning points. With 4th-and-1 at the BYU 31, a tied game and State still far from field goal position, Fitzgerald was to run a empty-backfield keeper right-of-center. The snap was clean but the quarterback simply fell face-first trying to adjust his course a bit on the second step. What he saw, or didn’t, to pick that angle after taking the snap wasn’t asked in post-game.
POUNDED ON THE GROUND: What is not at all subjective, is Fitzgerald doesn’t have the quality of ground game behind him Prescott did with LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson. No ’16 Bulldog back is close to that caliber.
But maybe Friday showed which direction this ground game must take. With starter RB Brandon Holloway missing the trip for undisclosed injury, RB Ashton Shumpert started and struggled to get 10 net yards on six runs. Before halftime RB Aeris Williams took over, and stayed in with rare breaks.
One of those high-altitude breathers came after the sophomore had four-straight carries in the third quarter for 35 yards and two first downs. Williams went to the side for air and Fitzgerald ran for 11 yards in his absence. But maybe that spoiled some sense of rhythm because next play back Fitzgerald and Williams were confused on an exchange and Williams had to fall on his own fumble.
That play, and other examples this season such as a wrong-way move at LSU to nip a promising drive, are likely why Williams still hasn’t locked down the starting job. But with 82 yards on 21 runs at BYU the third-year runner has to be claiming a larger role. Maybe even starting status pending Holloway’s health?
For other comparison, Williams came in with 15 carries in five games for 69 yards. He is now averaging 4.6 yards per rush, same as Holloway but with much, much more ability to gain ground after any contact.
SHUFFLING THE DECK: Mississippi State was without a pair of starters from injury. Mullen makes a frequent point about how ‘young’ the Bulldogs are, more so in terms of experience than actual age. This starting lineup got a little bit younger for game-six with two seniors missing.
Holloway and FS Kivon Coman did not make the trip, each with undisclosed injuries. Holloway’s place was taken by a classmate at least, senior RB Ashton Shumpert for a second start this season and seventh career. Coman was replaced by true sophomore S Mark McLaurin, making his first college start.
And the roster did add some age. Senior V Will Coleman dressed out for the first time this season. Coleman suffered a back injury the second day of August camp.
The game saw three more Dogs helped to the sideline, though a couple came back. S Jamal Peters went out at 0:40 before halftime on the play McLaurin intercepted. He returned to play in the third quarter.
CB Lashard Durr landed badly on his second-quarter interference in the end zone, and came off with a hurting arm. He was warming up by halftime, too.
Much more serious was an ankle injury to OG Deion Calhoun as State was driving for the 14-7 lead. Calhoun spend the second half on crutches with a boot on the left ankle. Redshirt freshman OG Michael Story went the rest of the way for Calhoun, but at left guard; starter Devon Desper slid over to Calhoun’s right guard spot.
Mullen had no update on any conditions, Holloway in particular when asked. “I don’t comment on injuries.”
SPECIALIZING, OR NOT: P Logan Cooke had been held off his kickoff duty for a couple of weeks. His nagging knee didn’t impact Cooke’s punting, but striding into a kickoff was more problematic. Against Auburn it was walk-on freshman Brad Wall taking care of the three kickoffs, making his college debut.
Cooke was cleared for all action again this game and averaged 63.7 yards with two touchbacks.
PK Westin Graves’ October isn’t off to a strong start. After missing a 28-yarder last week on the home field, he was wide from 42 yards in Provo which would have been the first points of the evening for either side…and loomed larger in the later going. In September he was 8-of-10, though it was his fourth-quarter misses against South Alabama that are remembered more.
In Holloway’s absence, WR Keith Mixon joined WR Malik Dear for kickoff return. Only Dear was given a returnable ball in Provo, and he was put down after just 14 yards.
GO THE OTHER WAY: The best return of the whole day was by S Mark McLaurin, as he ran back his interception before halftime 27 yards. It was the sophomore’s first turnover of his career.
But McLaurin was likely thinking more of a third quarter opportunity. He had a shot at a high throw by BYU’s Taysom Hill inside mid-field and a lot of green in front, when a pick-six would have put State up 21-14.
That wasn’t the only such lost opportunity by the Dog defense to score points. On the very first Cougar offensive play of the evening LB Richie Brown read Hill’s short throw and jumped the route, getting the ball on both hands with all momentum going to the goal about 30 yards away. The ball ricocheted off the ‘backer’s gloves.
MIDDLE MONTH: Up to now October has been a competitive month for Dan Mullen teams. In the previous seven seasons Mississippi State was 20-8, including a 11-6 conference record. Now the 2016 team is in a 0-2 hole with losses to Auburn and Brigham Young.
Friday was also the first non-conference loss, and third overall, for Mullen in October since his debut season, when the 2009 team loss to Georgia Tech and Houston consecutively. BYU snapped a nine-win streak.
Also, four of Mullen’s six bowling Bulldog teams achieved eligibility by the end of October (2010, ’12, ’14, ’15). And the 2011 and ’13 teams which had to earn bowl status on the last day of the season still got to November with four wins.
For that matter no Bulldog team which went bowling failed to win at least four games before November. This club has that opportunity with upcoming contests at Kentucky and hosting Samford. And Mullen has made much of his career at Kentucky’s expense, 7-0 as a head coach with Mississippi State and 4-0 as a Florida assistant.
RECORD ROSS: WR Fred Ross went to the Rockies needing seven receptions to become the all-time Bulldog record holder. He got five, giving the senior 161 in four seasons. That is one back of the 162 in three seasons by David Smith in 1968-70. Ross did surpass Chad Bumphis (159) for second place.
He also is now #5 in career yardage at 1,994; having passed Justin Jenkins’ 1,974. Next-up is Eric Moulds at 2,022 in fourth place.
And Chad Bumphis’ career record of 2,270 is within reach with six games remaining for Ross.
Of course Ross would have tied that record, and added a touchdown to his career tally, had he come down with QB Nick Fitzgerald’s perfect end zone throw in the second overtime.
OK, A.J.: DT A.J. Jefferson added a tackle-for-loss to his tally with a eight-yard play at BYU. That gives the senior 34.5 stops behind the line.
His next half-TFL will tie him, or solo stop will put him ahead of both Johnie Cooks and Glen Collins at 35.0.
FURIOUS FROSH: LB Leo Lewis was leading all SEC freshmen defenders in tackles going into Friday. His work in Provo extended that lead.
The redshirt rookie came away as the team’s top tackler with 12 credited stops by the BYU stat crew. Lewis now has 43 tackles on the season and is second only to LB Richie Brown’s 51 this season. At this pace Lewis will have everyone grinding through past season stats for most tackles credited to a freshman, true or redshirt.
FLAGS FLY: Coleman’s return wasn’t a triumph, unfortunately. Beside the team’s loss, it was Coleman involved with one of the decisive and controversial moments. With Brigham Young down 14-7 and facing 3rd-and-goal from the Bulldog eight-yard line, Cougar quarterback Taysom Hill threw low and wide of his end zone target.
But a flag flew too. Coleman had kept coming for Hill and caught him with an arm to the head area. Not directly and not hard, just enough to draw the roughing penalty. And, give the Cougars a do-over they needed. Four snaps, one negated on holding, later Hill hooked up for the tying touchdown.
It wasn’t the only touchy call by the SEC officiating crew. In the second quarter as LB Richie Brown hit Hill on an incomplete pass DT A.J. Jefferson’s forearm made contact with the facemask. This roughing call left the MSU sideline livid, not for the last time.
Mid-way of the third period NT Fletcher Adams was called for hands to the face, helping dig BYU out of a hold on their one-yard line. Four of the seven Bulldog penalties were personal fouls, all called according to Mullen by the same SEC referee.
“There were four personal fouls called by one official in the same game. Very interesting. I’ve never seen that happen before.”
To balance the books a bit, BYU had two more penalties and 21 more yards assessed. And the home crowd had good reason to question a couple of pass interference calls by the visiting crew down the stretch. The second, on TE Farrod Green, set up State’s overtime touchdown for a brief 21-14 lead.
Coleman was the only first-time player for the season.
DT Nick James made his first start of the season, in place of four-game starter DT Cory Thomas. CB Lashard Durr returned to the starting squad after a week’s absence, and changed sides of the field as well. CB Cedric Jiles made a second-start in as many senior year games since returning from injury; and CB Jamoral Graham did not start for the first time in 2016.