Mississippi State football: Is it time to bench Nick Fitzgerald, rotate QBs?
Through five weeks of the 2018 college football season, the Mississippi State Bulldogs find themselves in a spot they didn’t think they’d be in – winless in the SEC.
After dropping a heartbreaker of a revenge game against former coach Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators at home 13-6, the Bulldogs now sit at 3-2 (0-2). Things don’t figure to get any easier with contests against No. 8 Auburn, No. 5 LSU and Texas A&M looming.
More alarming than anything has been the extremely sudden dropoff in offense the last two games, both of them losses.
In their first three games – all wins – the Bulldogs averaged 50 points per game and 587.6 yards of offense, 276 through the air and 311.6 on the ground. They averaged 7.6 yards per carry and 9.7 yards per pass attempt. They were 22-of-36 (61 percent) on third downs. All rock-solid numbers indicative of a top-20 team.
Then came the dropoff.
In their two losses to Kentucky and Florida, they averaged just 6.5 points per game. They averaged 201.5 yards of offense – 121.5 through the air and 80 on the ground. They averaged 2.6 yards per carry and 4.1 yards per pass attempt. They were 9-of-29 (31 percent) on third downs. Completely and utterly atrocious numbers.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, much of the blame falls upon senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who has seen a precipitous dropoff in both production and quality of play.
There were expectations from many, myself included, that the arrival of Joe Moorhead as head coach would benefit Fitzgerald’s passing mechanics and thus production. After all, that was the big knock on him throughout the previous two years as the starting QB.
He dazzled carrying the ball in that time, rushing for 2,359 yards and 30 TDs, but was inconsistent throwing. Sure, he threw for 4,205 yards with 36 TDs, but he also threw 21 INTs, completed 54 percent of his passes and averaged 6.49 yards per attempt. At 6-5, 230 pounds, with plus athleticism and a strong arm, Fitzgerald had the tools, and the thought was that Moorhead was the solution to his inconsistencies as a passer.
Instead, he has actually regressed, which makes this the second year in a row he has seen a decline in his passing statistics. He has gone from a 54.3 completion percentage in 2016 to 55.6 in 2017 to 49.1 this year. He has gone from 6.7 to 6.2 to 6.0 yards per attempt. Compounding matters is that the one thing you could always rely on him for, running the ball, is falling off as well as he has gone from 7.1 to 6.1 to now 4.5 rushing yards per attempt.
Put the numbers aside and take a look at the film to see if the numbers are a tad misleading. They’re not. His accuracy has been shaky at best, and his ball placement has been subpar. He’s not throwing his receivers open; he’s throwing behind them on crossing routes and overthrowing on fades and verticals. He’s not hitting corners, posts, outs or digs. Too often he’s throwing into coverage, particularly later in games trying to force a play, and his reads on run-pass options have been very poor, limiting the effectiveness of the running backs.
It hasn’t helped that he hasn’t had much time in the pocket. Fitzgerald’s accuracy is far better when he has a clean pocket and can set his feet, but far too often he’s getting pushed up and out of the pocket, which hinders his ball placement even further. The tackles have been getting torched by speed rushers off the edge, and the interior has struggled with blitz pickup.
Now, to be fair, Fitzgerald’s receivers haven’t done much to help their embattled QB. Last year, many pinned the blame on the thin and depleted receiving corps for the dip in passing production, which, to be sure, played a big role. Going into this year, the unit was expected to be far more effective, with players coming back healthy and expected breakout performances from fresh faces like Stephen Guidry, Reggie Todd, Devonta Jason and Austin Williams. Well, Guidry has struggled with consistency, Todd is suspended for the year and both Williams and Jason have failed to make much of an impact.
The receiving unit as a whole has struggled to consistently get separation, particularly against man coverage. Even when they are able to separate and Fitzgerald is able to put it on the numbers, they’ve struggled to hang on to the ball. Drops have plagued the team all season.
Simply put, the offense has stalled completely with Fitzgerald behind the wheel. Two weeks in a row, the Bulldogs have found themselves behind in the fourth quarter of a tight SEC game, and each time their senior QB has failed to carry them over the top. The results speak for themselves.
So, should Moorhead give backup Keytaon Thompson a crack at the job? The 6-4, 225-pound sophomore has started two games in his career (both wins) and has played substantially in three. In those three games, he has thrown for 686 yards with 6 TDs and 2 INTs. He has also carried the ball 63 times for 377 yards and another 6 TDs. 1,063 yards of offense and 12 TDs in three games is certainly impressive.
With that said, the problems that have plagued Fitzgerald (namely accuracy) have plagued Thompson as well, as he has completed just 47 percent of his passes in those three games. One big difference, however, is that Thompson has averaged 8.79 yards per attempt, meaning that he’s at least taking (and making) some shots downfield, helping to stretch the defense a bit.
If I were Moorhead, and thankfully I’m not, I’d give Fitzgerald the start this week against Auburn. I’d even give him the first half to try to right the ship and get into a rhythm. But if he’s still struggling mightily, why not switch things up by inserting Thompson into the lineup in the second half? Really, why not? It’s not like the offense could do much worse at this point with him taking snaps, and maybe he provides the spark that the offense has been missing.