Mississippi State football: It's obvious and overdue. It's time to bench Nick Fitzgerald
Expectations were extraordinarily high for the Mississippi State Bulldogs as they began the 2018 season.
After all, they had as talented of a roster Starkville has seen since at least 1999. Two very talented tailbacks, a good offensive line and an elite defense is a healthy starting off point to any season. Plus, there was great optimism about what new HC Joe Moorhead would be able to do with talented but inconsistent QB Nick Fitzgerald, a big and athletic kid who had arm strength and the ability to make plays with his feet, but was in need of a QB whisperer to help him clean up his mechanics and the way he sees the field.
Combine what was thought to be an improved Fitzgerald and receiving corps to a proven and reliable rushing attack and the vaunted defense, and you can see why some thought this could be an historic year for State. There were hopes that this could be the year to finally unseat Alabama in the SEC West and get back to Atlanta for the first time in 20 years.
Now fast forward to Week 8. Not only are the Bulldogs a disappointing 4-3 (just 1-3 in SEC play), but it’s become undeniably apparent that they absolutely have to take Fitzgerald off the field — an inconceivable notion that no one would’ve thought possible just a few short weeks prior.
Not only has Fitzgerald failed to develop as a passer under Moorhead, but he’s actually regressed considerably. Not only has he become the worst passing QB in the SEC, but he’s a liability to the team as a whole, literally costing the team wins.
The signs of Fitzgerald’s struggles were evident in his first start of the season, against Kansas State, when he was 11-of-27 for 154 yards (5.7 Y/A) with 2 TDs and 1 INT. Little did we know that would be his second-best performance of the year. He struggled mightily in that game to generate any kind of consistency or rhythm passing the ball downfield, failing to make proper reads, throwing into coverage and missing his targets wildly. It was thought that he was just rusty after an offseason of rehabbing a gruesome ankle injury suffered in the 2017 Egg Bowl.
The next week against a very overmatched Louisiana-Lafayette squad, Fitzgerald put forth his best performance of the year, completing 14-of-21 passes for 243 yards (11.6 Y/A) with 2 TDs and no INTs. Everyone assumed he was back in the saddle and in a groove at the perfect time – just as conference play was set to begin.
As it turned out the next week against a very solid Kentucky squad, the fears of Fitzgerald’s passing regression continued, as he was held to 16-of-32 for 145 yards (4.5 Y/A) with no TDs and 1 INT. With the run game stalling against a good Wildcat front seven and the Bulldogs down by 7 midway through the 4thquarter, it was the perfect opportunity for a senior QB to put the team on his back and carry them to victory. Instead, he threw into coverage and Kentucky came away with a turnover. The next play, Kentucky scored, effectively putting the game out of reach.
It was almost the same exact story the very next week against Florida, the highly anticipated game against former boss Dan Mullen, a game to not only make amends for the previous week but satiate a hungry and angry fan base thirsting for revenge. Fitzgerald not only didn’t bounce back, but he got worse, completing 11-of-26 passes for 98 yards (3.8 Y/A) with no TDs.
Again the Bulldogs found themselves down by just 7 points entering the 4thquarter against an SEC foe, this time playing at home. The Bulldogs had 4 drives in the 4thquarter – 4 opportunities for Fitzgerald to lead his team to victory. Just 7 points to tie the game, and with a raucous home crowd, an OT victory was within reach. His performance on those 4 drives: 2-of-10 passing, for 21 yards and no points.
It was at this point that Moorhead realized he couldn’t use Fitzgerald as a passer anymore. It was clearly the weakness of the team and they would now prioritize the strength of the team (the rushing attack) over having a balanced offense. The result was a resounding victory over then-No. 8 Auburn, a game in which the Bulldogs would rush 57 times for 349 yards, while attempting just 17 passes.
Unfortunately, anything the Bulldogs learned from their win over Auburn went out the window against LSU. The defense played a hell of a game, forcing them into 4 FGs, but again the offense came up short, and it was again due to Fitzgerald’s struggles. Finally, it seems, Fitzgerald hit rock bottom, completing just 8-of-24 pass attempts for 59 yards with no TDs and a jaw-dropping 4 INTs.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that if the Bulldogs have had even an average (not great, simply average) passing attack this year, the team would be 7-0.
People, Fitzgerald hasn’t thrown a TD pass since Sept. 15. In his past 4 games, he’s completed 44-of-99 attempts for 371 yards with no TDs and 6 INTs, averaging an abysmal 3.74 yards per attempt, and his team has gone 1-3. I know he’s been successful as a ball carrier in that span (378 rushing yards, 3 TDs), but that doesn’t justify keeping him on the field.
If you don’t think the statistics are telling the full story, watch the film. His footwork is off, he’s not making pre-snap reads, he’s not going through progressions and he’s staring down targets. He forces throws into coverage when he’s pressured and when he has a clean pocket. His ball placement has been horrible, constantly missing wide open targets to all three levels, and his body language, though many scoff at such a notion, has undoubtedly had an effect in the huddle. He’s lost his confidence, his mojo, his moxie, and that’s anchoring the offense down.
The time has come for Moorhead to insert Keytaon Thompson into the starting lineup.
The 6-4, 225-pound sophomore, who ironically leads the team in TD passes with 5 despite starting just one game, isn’t a whole lot better in terms of accuracy (career 47% passer), but he’s at least shown an ability to connect with targets downfield, as he’s averaged 7.9 yards per attempt. The Bulldogs won’t miss a beat in terms of using their QB as a weapon in the ground game as Thompson has rushed for 607 yards and 9 TDs on 90 career attempts, showing both burst and power.
Perhaps more important, he’s injected excitement and playmaking ability into the offense in each of the 3 games he’s seen considerable playing time (Egg Bowl against Ole Miss, bowl game against Louisville and ’18 opener against Stephen F. Austin). In those three games, Thompson completed 37-of-78 passes (47%) for 686 yards with 6 TDs and 2 INTs, while adding 377 yards and another 6 TDs on the ground. Sure, he struggles with accuracy like Fitzgerald, but when he does connect it’s downfield for yards and points, two things Fitzgerald hasn’t been able to do this year.
I know benching Fitzgerald is literally the last thing Moorhead wants to do.
Benching a senior, 3-year starter under center who has broken a number of school and conference records is not something any coach wants to do. Fitzgerald has had too good of a career to end up on the bench, unceremoniously losing his job. But at some point, Moorhead has to do what’s best for the team and not the player, at least if he has any intention of trying to salvage what’s left of the season.