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Nick Fitzgerald Is Taking The SEC By Storm

Marvin Gentry-USA Today Sports

The junior quarterback is putting up ridiculous numbers, as he has Mississippi State surging in the polls.

After posting six wins in his first season at the helm of the Bulldog offense, Mississippi State junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is back.

And he’s hungry.

A season ago, Fitzgerald started the year as the backup, but won the starting position by Week 2. He went on to thrive as the starter, ranking second in the SEC in rushing yards and pacing the conference in rushing touchdowns. Fitzgerald also posted an impressive 124 passer efficiency rating last year to go along with almost 2,500 yards and 21 touchdowns. Here are his stats compared to Cam Newton’s 2010 Heisman year:


Cam Newton 2010 SeasonNick Fitzgerald 2016 Season
Passing TD’s3021
Passing Yards2,8542,423
Completion %66.154.3
Rushing Yards1,4731,375
Rushing TD’s2016
Yards/Carry5.67.1

Fitzgerald’s numbers were similar to the totals Cam Newton put up in his Heisman year

This year, Fitzgerald aims to be even more lethal. His impressive numbers helped the Bulldogs score over 30 points per contest, ranking seventh in the SEC. However, the Bulldog’s defense and inability to win close games prevented Fitzgerald and company from being a serious threat in the SEC. The Bulldogs ranked 93rd in the nation in points given up per game (31.8) and went 2-5 in games decided by seven points or less.

So far this season, Fitzgerald is proving that he can turn the ship around.

The QB has the Bulldog offense clicking on all cylinders right now, as Mississippi State is averaging over 47 points per game. The defense is showing that they can do their part, giving up only 28 points in the Bulldog’s first three games under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

In Mississippi State’s first two games, the Bulldogs rolled to wins over non-conference opponents Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech. Fitzgerald accounted for 515 total yards of offense and eight touchdowns, showing that he is one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC.

Statistically, Fitzgerald looked great after his first two games. But the question remained: Can he produce against talented defenses?

Last week, Fitzgerald got his opportunity to prove himself as not only one of the top players in the SEC, but in the entire nation as the Bulldogs got their first true test of the season against 12th ranked LSU. And he was up to the task.

The Tigers entered the contest at 2-0, riding high off of two blowout wins against BYU and Chattanooga. Despite being at home, the unranked Bulldogs entered the contest as underdogs.

To Fitzgerald, winning this game would be no upset at all.

Fitzgerald torched Ed Orgeron’s defense to the tune of 268 total yards, four touchdowns, and zero turnovers. In the second quarter Fitzgerald had two rushing touchdowns, including a three-yard scramble that put the Bulldogs up by 10 going into halftime. That score swung the momentum in favor of Mississippi State, as they would outscore LSU 20-0 in the second half en route to a resounding 37-7 victory.

After the game, Fitzgerald stated:

I guess to everyone outside of our facility, we’re not supposed to do that, but, honestly, if you ask anyone on this football team or anyone in the program at all, they would have told you that it wasn’t going to be an upset by any means. We knew that we could win the ball game and we knew that we could score points. We knew that we were going to win it.

The win propelled the Bulldogs into the AP poll, climbing from unranked to 17th. This is the first time Mississippi State has been ranked since November of 2015.

Fitzgerald and the Bulldog offense are going to give SEC defenses headaches this season. He has already amassed 783 yards of total offense, accounting for 12 touchdowns in just three games. But what is making him so successful on the field? How is he doing it?

The answer: the spread offense

Under head coach Dan Mullen, Fitzgerald is having the same success in the read option/spread offense as former Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott. They both play a similar style, as they are accurate passers with big arms, but can burn defenses with their legs and physical style of running. Prescott, now with the Dallas Cowboys, threw for over 9,000 yards, rushed for over 2,500 yards, and accounted for 114 touchdowns during his career at Mississippi State. Fitzgerald is on track to produce similar numbers thanks to the spread offense.

The goal of the spread offense, as its name suggests, is to spread the defense out, creating holes in the middle of the field. The main concept that Mississippi State uses in this offense is the read option, which relies on Fitzgerald reading the defense and reacting to what they are doing.

The spread offense that Mullen runs at Mississippi State has been very effective with Fitzgerald commanding the offense. Fitzgerald has three options when the Bulldogs are running the read option: he can either hand the ball off to his running back, run with it himself or even throw the ball downfield — it all depends on how he wants to respond to the defense.

Here’s Fitzgerald handing the ball off on the read option

The defensive end crashes on the running back, and Fitzgerald makes the defense pay.

Fitzgerald decides to throw the ball downfield, burning the defense down the middle

The read option leaves a defensive end unblocked, and Fitzgerald has to read his movement. If he crashes on the running back, Fitzgerald keeps it. Fitzgerald’s big frame paired with his physical running style make him a nightmare to tackle in the open field. If the defender stays home and doesn’t crash, Fitzgerald gives it to his running back. And if Fitzgerald sees the secondary creeping up to stop the run, he pulls it back to pass. 

To put it simply, opposing defenses have a lot to defend.

Fitzgerald will be faced with back-to-back tough road contests, as Mississippi State travels to Athens to square off against the 11th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs this Saturday before traveling to Auburn to face the 15th-ranked Tigers. Both defenses will be a stiff challenge for Fitzgerald, as Georgia has yet to give up more than 19 points this year and Auburn has yet to relinquish more than 14 points.

If Fitzgerald wants to leap into the top tier of quarterbacks in the nation, he will have to show he can produce against these tough SEC defenses. If he does, expect Mississippi State to continue to climb in the polls and Fitzgerald to climb up the Heisman watch list.


**All stats courtesy of espn.com and sports-reference.com/cfb

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

SQuiz
How many SEC titles has Mississippi State won in football?
Created 9/19/17
  1. 1
  2. 3
  3. 5
  4. 8

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