Mississippi State football: Nick Fitzgerald took steps in the right direction passing the ball
Three games into the 2018 season, we’re beginning to see the Mississippi State Bulldogs offense really take shape into what head coach Joe Moorhead is trying to build.
What’s amazing is the considerable success they’ve enjoyed on that side of the ball despite still being very much a work in progress. In State’s football history, they’ve crossed the 600-yard mark of total offense just seven times. Two of those performances have come in Moorhead’s first three games leading the Bulldogs, and that’s with an up-and-down passing game.
The biggest question pertaining to the offense heading into the season was if they could complete enough passes to satisfy Moorhead’s needs. His offense hums when the QB is completing 65 percent of his passes or better. Ideally, his QB can also effectively take shots downfield to stretch the defense vertically, which opens things up underneath for a bruising rushing attack and short passing game.
After two games, the concerns about the passing game were very much justified as Mississippi State QBs combined to complete just 26 of 61 attempts, or 42 percent. Needless to say, that’s simply not good enough, at least not for a team trying to compete for a conference championship.
Granted, star senior QB Nick Fitzgerald didn’t play in the Week 1 win against Stephen F. Austin. But in his return in Week 2 against Kansas State, he really struggled to find consistency through the air and completed just 11 of 27 attempts for 154 yards, averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt and completing 40 percent of his passes. Concerns about his viability to lead a balanced offense soared.
Fitzgerald did a great job assuaging some of those concerns on Saturday night in the 56-10 win over Louisiana-Lafayette. He completed 14 of 21 attempts (66 percent) for 243 yards with 2 TDs and no INTs. More important than the numbers, which obviously don’t always tell the full story, was how he looked in the process.
He did a better job making his reads. He did a better job with his footwork, squaring and planting his feet for delivery. He displayed better ball placement to his receivers, often squeezing it into tight windows. He showed far more consistency and efficiency in completing passes downfield, especially on third downs. He was able to complete passes of 44, 39, 25, 25, 25 and 21 yards, which is a far cry from the Kansas State game. He had better timing with his still-coming-together receiving corps, which was overhauled in the offseason. He simply looked more confident, and it was evident in the huddle, in the pocket, on the sidelines and on the stat sheet.
This should serve as a big confidence boost for Fitzgerald, who will be the catalyst for the offense all season long. The Bulldogs need him to be the kind of passer he was on Saturday night all year if they want to compete for a conference title.
Make no mistake, this is a really good team, and Moorhead is rapidly proving to be a very good hire. The defense is legitimately frightening. They’re fast, physical and explosive. The offensive line is very strong, particularly up the middle. The running backs are powerful and can wear down any front seven. The receivers are improved from last year and are getting better each week. The QB is the difference-maker, though, and he’ll be the deciding factor of whether this is an 11- or 12-win team or an 8-, 9- or 10-win team.
Opposing fans will be quick to point out that Fitzgerald, who combined for 6 TDs on Saturday night, did so against inferior competition. This is true. But you also must remember that this is just his second game back from a horrible ankle injury suffered at the end of last season. All offseason, he was trying to not only rehab and get healthy again but master a brand-new offense while also improving his mechanics.
He’s not a finished product by any means, but what you want to see is continual improvement. He had a bad game against Kansas State, which he and his coach acknowledged. That’s not the end of the world. What I and everybody else wanted to see was how he would respond, and he came back with an excellent performance, showing a lot of improvements in the areas that were lacking the week prior. That’s exactly what you want to see, and that’s why State fans should feel good right now.
Fitzgerald has the natural ability to play QB in the NFL. He’s a big, strong kid with a great frame and impressive athleticism. He can make plays with his feet and extend them outside the pocket. He has a naturally powerful arm with the ability to generate impressive velocity, especially when he sets his feet. He’s a good leader who has command of the huddle and the respect of his teammates.
Continuing to improve his mechanics, making proper reads, going through progressions and steadily improving ball placement is what scouts are looking for at this point. All of this won’t happen overnight. It’s a slow process, and each week is another step. The main thing is that you want each step going in the right direction. This week was a big step in the right direction.
Next week will be the Bulldogs’ toughest challenge yet as they head on the road to Lexington to take on an undefeated Kentucky Wildcats squad that’s allowing just 15 points per game. It’ll also provide another test for Fitzgerald to prove he’s heading in the right direction.