Mississippi State football: Nick Fitzgerald vs. LSU's run defense is a classic showdown
Nick Fitzgerald ran for 88 yards and 2 TDs in last year’s big win over LSU. Can he do it again?
Quarterbacks are the key to winning in football. This is no secret, because after all, it’s arguably the single most important position in all of team sports. So, of course QBs play a big role in deciding which team is the victor in any contest.
This week the No. 22 Mississippi State Bulldogs take on the No. 5 LSU Tigers, and unsurprisingly, the key to whether the Bulldogs escape Death Valley with a ‘W’ should ultimately come down to the play of senior QB Nick Fitzgerald.
Shocking, I know, that getting good play from the QB is a key to beating a top-5 team on the road, but it’s not for the typical reasons you might think. Normally, the QB’s ability to pass is key, but in this instance, Fitzgerald’s running could prove to be the difference.
First, kudos to LSU on the season they’re having. They’re vastly exceeding my preseason expectations and are playing as well as anyone not named Alabama at this point. Surprisingly, they’re doing it in precisely the same way former coach Les Miles, who was run out of town for going 114-34 in 11+ seasons, would have done it – a powerful rushing attack helmed by a game manager under center, backed by an elite defense.
With that said, they’re certainly beatable, as was proven in The Swamp two weeks ago, when the Florida Gators prevailed 27-19. How did the Gators win that game? Well, they stopped the Tigers’ rushing attack and forced them to pass, and by doing so forced QB Joe Burrow into 3 costly turnovers. They also ran the ball very well, gashing the vaunted Tigers’ front seven for 215 rushing yards and 2 TDs, averaging 5 yards per carry on 43 attempts.
You can rest assured knowing that Joe Moorhead is going to try and replicate that against the Tigers.
The Gators began running more zone-read options in the second quarter onward and began to find success. RB Lamical Perine had 17 carries for 85 yards and 2 TDs. RB Jordan Scarlett had 14 for 65, and QB Feleipe Franks had 6 for 42. While Franks didn’t finish with a plethora of rushing yards, the threat of him running, coupled with smart reads, led to points. The rushing attack began humming so well that it even began creating some opportunities for calculated shots downfield in advantageous situations.
The Bulldogs have the ability to enact a similar attack on LSU, possibly even better than the Gators did.
The Bulldogs’ RB tandem of Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams is arguably even more talented than the Gators’ duo of Perine and Scarlett. The Bulldogs’ offensive line is a more powerful unit at the point of attack than the Gators, particularly along the interior. And yes, Fitzgerald is a much better ball carrier than Franks (though Franks does get the edge as a passer).
Now, Dave Aranda is anything but a stupid man. He’s the best DC in the country for a reason, and the amount of talent he’s working with is only half the reason. He’s clearly going to focus the game plan on stopping the run.
Historically few QBs have had success running against LSU. Since 2000, just four have topped 100 yards rushing against the Tigers. Of the four — Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, Jalen Hurts and Dak Prescott (twice) — only Hurts did so against Aranda.
Sacks impact rushing totals, but Fitzgerald was held to 13 yards in the 2016 loss to LSU but went off for 88 and 2 TDs against the Tigers last season. Not surprisingly, Mississippi State won that game, 37-7.
The Bulldogs still run an RPO-heavy offense that leans considerably toward the former. The Tigers know they’re going to deal with at least two legitimate threats to run the ball on every single play, which is where Fitzgerald’s true value will come into play.
Simply put, Fitzgerald has to be flawless making his reads. He won’t have much time before making a decision on each play, and he can’t afford to be wrong. When he’s right, either he or one of the two backs will have the opportunity for 6-7 yards (if not more). When he’s wrong, it’s going to be a tackle-for-a-loss, and string two of those together and you’re sitting at 3rd-and-long, asking Fitz to win with his arm (which has never been a successful formula).
If Fitzgerald and company can control the ball on the ground and keep the chains moving, they’ll not only start wearing LSU’s defense down (like they did against Auburn), but they’ll eventually start taking the crowd out of the game, which is the single most important asset the Tigers have in this matchup.
The last thing the Tigers want is to find themselves down by 2 scores in the second half with a momentum-less crowd asking Burrow to carve up a Mississippi State defense that is giving up just 12.7 points per game (No. 1 nationally), 289.7 yards of offense (8th), 174.3 passing yards (14th) and 0.5 TD passes per game (3rd).
Anything that Fitzgerald can offer through the air will only be a bonus, but the Bulldogs can’t rely on that. They need him to provide balance to their rushing attack and crucial to that attack will be making the right pre and post-snap reads. If Fitzgerald has another night like he did two weeks ago against a very stout Auburn front seven (28 carries, 195 yards and 2 TDs while Kylin Hill added another 126 yards), the Bulldogs will be in excellent shape to come away with a monumental win that will undoubtedly shake things up in the SEC West race.
As is usually the case, it all comes down to the QB.