Nick Fitzgerald's suspension was rough on him. Will his debut in Joe Moorhead's system be rough, too?
Joe Moorhead’s first month at Penn State feels like a lifetime ago.
In the end of September 2016, the Lions were a 2-2 team on the heels of a blowout loss at Michigan. They had a head coach in James Franklin who fans were running out of patience with coming off a pair of 7-win seasons in which the Lions ranked No. 110 and No. 101 in scoring offense.
It was up to Moorhead, their first-year offensive coordinator, to make the right adjustment with first-year starting quarterback Trace McSorley.
“After that Michigan game and into that Maryland game, we made a conscious decision to run Trace more,” Moorhead said. “From that point on, I think we really hit our stride offensively.”
That’s an understatement.
In the first 4 games, McSorley totaled 32 rushing yards and 1 touchdown. In the next 10 games, McSorley racked up 333 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns for a Penn State team that won the Big Ten and nearly won the Rose Bowl. The end results were impressive — McSorley had 36 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards from scrimmage in his first year in Moorhead’s system — but there was a learning curve. There was a trial and error period that first month.
On Saturday, Nick Fitzgerald will make his debut in Moorhead’s system at Mississippi State.
If not for his 1-game suspension, that would have been last week in a favorable matchup against FCS Stephen F. Austin. Instead, Keytaon Thompson got to break in Moorhead’s system with a 7-touchdown performance while Fitzgerald was relegated to scout-team duties (a role “he handled well,” according to Moorhead).
With the 1-game suspension in his rearview mirror, Fitzgerald’s first taste of the Moorhead experience will come on the road at Kansas State. It’ll be MSU’s first nonconference Power 5 road game since 2008.
The question is if Fitzgerald is ready to thrive immediately, or if he’ll experience the same feeling-out process that Moorhead had with McSorley.
Fitzgerald has been getting McSorley comparisons all offseason because of the Moorhead connection. There is, however, a major difference.
When Moorhead arrived at Penn State in 2016, McSorley had zero career starts. When Moorhead arrived at Mississippi State in 2018, Fitzgerald had 25 career starts and 11 school records.
That’s why Moorhead is confident that Fitzgerald is ready to master his system from the jump.
“Look at Nick’s history as a quarterback, and in particularly as a ball-carrier. I think he’s just about 500 yards from becoming the SEC’s all-time leading rusher at the position,” Moorhead said. “He’s 6-4, 230, big, strong, physical, fast. He can make plays with his feet by design or by improvisation. That doesn’t even touch on his ability as a passer.
“I think he’s an excellent fit for us systematically.”
The run-pass balance has always been an interesting topic of discussion for Fitzgerald. He’s certainly more of a run-first quarterback than McSorley, but there’s another key difference between the quarterbacks.
Fitzgerald’s first Moorhead-coached game will also be his first since he broke his ankle in the Egg Bowl last year. Fitzgerald maintained all summer that he was progressing, and even that he was 100 percent at SEC Media Days.
Still, though. Moorhead’s offense thrives on a mobile, versatile quarterback. That’s true dating back to his days at Fordham, where quarterback Kevin Anderson averaged 13.2 rushing attempts per contest for an offense that averaged 453 yards in 2015.
If Fitzgerald is his usual, mobile self without any limitations, Saturday’s trip to Manhattan should be a successful one. Moorhead hasn’t indicated that Fitzgerald will have any restrictions, or that MSU will want to protect his ankle. Until we see Fitzgerald, we won’t have answers to those questions.
No matter how healthy he is, all eyes will be on Fitzgerald. Unlike McSorley, Fitzgerald won’t have the aid of an all-world tailback like Saquon Barkley to divert the defense. Fitzgerald, at least for now, is the clear focal point of the MSU offense.
There is good news for Fitzgerald. While his task this weekend is daunting — first game in a new system, playing on the road, coming off an injury, etc. — MSU is an 8.5-point favorite at Kansas State for a reason.
It’s not like the Wildcats are coming off a stellar performance. They recorded 1 sack in a nail-biter win against FCS South Dakota after trailing by 2 scores in the fourth quarter. Kansas State also has a first-year defensive coordinator who inherited a unit that ranked No. 90 in yards allowed last year.
Kansas State will still present a new challenge for Fitzgerald, who would like to improve on his 5-6 road record at MSU. With a new coaching staff, Saturday will begin a different chapter of his historic career.
Fitzgerald admitted that it does feel like Week 1 for him, though he said he’s not nervous about the new experience that awaits. Perhaps he’ll even have a little extra motivation to show out after his understudy racked up 473 yards and 7 total touchdowns in his Moorhead debut.
Will Fitzgerald hit the ground running like the post-Michigan version of McSorley? Or will MSU’s offense be the early-2016 version of Penn State all over again? We’ll find out soon enough.
What we do know is that shortly after he got the MSU job, Moorhead texted Fitzgerald to clear a spot on his mantle for his Heisman Trophy.
In other words, no, Moorhead won’t be lacking confidence in his quarterback come Saturday.