Mississippi State football: Bulldogs have to be able to rely on Nick Fitzgerald when rushing attack fails
Mississippi State fans are likely still smarting from the rough 28-7 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night. Understandably. The rainy weather was symbolic of the caliber of game the Bulldogs put forth in Lexington. It was the perfect storm of a terrible game.
The Bulldogs, now 3-1 (0-1), struggled on both lines of scrimmage. The offensive line failed to generate any kind of push in the rushing attack, getting beaten up by the Kentucky defensive line. They committed penalty after penalty, either false starts due to crowd noise and pre-snap movement or holding calls trying to contain linebacker Josh Allen, who simply abused State’s tackles. Neither Aeris Williams nor Kylin Hill was ever able to find any room to run, and the Cats shut down the middle of the field against Nick Fitzgerald, where he often likes to find rushing lanes.
The vaunted defensive line did a good job applying pressure to Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson (both Montez Sweat and Braxton Hoyett were strong in this regard), but they got worn down against the run. Part of the reason is that the Kentucky offensive line is vastly underrated, but a big part of that was that they couldn’t get off the field, due in large part to an extraordinary number of penalties that kept the Wildcats offense sustaining drives. And we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t give running back Benny Snell the credit he deserves for having one hell of a game.
Despite an offense that entered the game ranked seventh nationally in total yards per game (587.7) and fifth in rushing yards per game (311.7), the Bulldogs managed only 201 yards of offense with just 56 on the ground. The run defense entered the game 13th nationally, allowing just 85 rushing yards per game, and Kentucky gashed them for 229 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
Obviously, the Mississippi State offense is built on a strong rushing attack, which they rely upon heavily. Every once in a while, they’re going to struggle to get the ground game going. Whether it’s Kentucky or Alabama or LSU or Auburn – this likely won’t be the only game in which the Bulldogs fail to generate the kind of power or dominance up front that they’re looking for. When that happens, similarly to Saturday night, they have to be able to rely on their passing attack, helmed by their star senior QB, Fitzgerald.
On Saturday night, as has been the case many times before, Fitzgerald struggled to complete passes consistently when the team depended on him to bail them out. This can’t continue if the Bulldogs are going to stay alive in the SEC West race.
Fitzgerald, who completed 16 of 32 attempts (50 percent) for 145 yards with 0 TDs and 1 INT, was noticeably uncomfortable all night long and failed to ever find his rhythm. The velocity was there, though that has never been the problem. It’s ball placement, particularly on deep balls. He was off throughout the game, missing wildly on numerous passes, either over- or underthrowing his intended targets. When he was pushed out of the pocket, he couldn’t connect with his receivers on the run. Later in the game, when he knew he had to start completing passes, he started forcing the ball into heavy coverage, which led to his pick.
Now, the failure of the passing game wasn’t entirely Fitzgerald’s fault. He was pressured early and often by the Kentucky front seven. His receivers didn’t offer much help as they were plagued by drops on a night when the ball was very wet. There were many short and intermediate throws where Fitzgerald put it on the numbers and his receiver couldn’t hang on to it. The inability to establish any sort of ground game also slowly began to limit the playbook, forcing an unbalanced offense.
Still, Fitzgerald is in the middle of his third year as the starting QB. He has been the face of the offense for years on some very good teams. He has broken numerous school and conference records. At this point in his career, he has to be able to carry the offense when they need him to. When his team is down by 7 entering the fourth quarter in a conference road game, he has to be able to take his game to another level and put the offense on his back. That’s what great QBs do, and Fitzgerald hasn’t shown that ability yet.
I know it’s gloomy today. It’ll probably be gloomy tomorrow, and maybe even the day after that. There are undoubtedly countless overreactions by fans at this point, many claiming the season is over, Joe Moorhead is a failed hire and everyone needs to be fired. Trust me, I get it. After a game in which virtually everything went wrong, it feels like you’re now stuck in a permanent abyss, drawing the ire of any and every angry football god there is. But this will pass.
Every game is a season in and of itself. That loss is in the rearview window now – essentially ancient history. That game provided plenty of proof of the work left to be done to trim the fat on this still very talented squad. Yes, this is still a very, very good team. One bad game doesn’t change that. And remember, this doesn’t signal the end of the season, either. They’re still alive in the SEC West race; now they just don’t have any margin for error moving forward.
This week, they’ll have the perfect opportunity for a rebound – hosting the 3-1 Florida Gators, now led by their former coach, Dan Mullen. I can’t even imagine how loud the cowbells will be that night.
One thing is for sure, though, moving forward. A deciding factor of whether this is a 10-win team or a seven-win team will be how Fitzgerald plays moving forward. Saturday night likely won’t be the last time the Bulldogs face a deficit late in the game and need their star QB to carry them. Hopefully for State, the results next time will be different.