When Nick Fitzgerald and Jordan Ta’amu take the field this Thursday night for the Egg Bowl, it’ll be the first time since 2003 that both teams start a senior under center (or in shotgun, considering the offenses) in the annual matchup that concludes the regular season.
For Fitzgerald, it will be the final regular season game in a Mississippi State uniform. For Ta’amu, it’ll be the last college game he’ll ever play.
These two quarterbacks are on opposite sidelines of a fierce rivalry, but one thing they can surely sympathize with each other on is that they know what it’s like to have gone through the ringer as an SEC quarterback. Each is familiar with how high the highs can be, and how low the lows can be.
Neither played a flawless year in 2018, and there will surely be some regrets on what they could have or should have done differently. And time will tell how they’re truly remembered for their contributions on the field, but make no mistake, these are two of the best quarterbacks either program has ever produced.
I know, the majority of you reading this right now either shook your head, scoffed, or loudly voiced your disagreement while quickly trying to rattle off the names of quarterbacks who were better. And I’m not saying they’re each the best in school history, but they’re up there.
Appreciating Nick Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald had the tall task of replacing Dak Prescott, arguably the greatest quarterback and maybe even player in program history. A guy who threw for 9,376 yards with 70 touchdowns and only 22 interceptions while adding another 2,521 yards and 41 touchdowns on the ground. Who helped lead the Bulldogs reach No. 1, just their second 10-win season since 1940 and set a bevy of school records. He became just the second quarterback in SEC history to compile 3 seasons of 10+ passing touchdowns and 10+ rushing touchdowns.
Nobody wants to replace the legend. Fitzgerald had no choice. But then he carved out his own legacy.
Not only did Fitzgerald help keep Mississippi State firmly entrenched as a Top-25 caliber team (which historically isn’t easy in Starkville), but he found an immense amount of success on the field and began setting school records in numerous categories, including breaking many records set by his predecessor.
With 2 games remaining in his college career, Fitzgerald has passed for 5,944 yards with 53 touchdowns and 28 interceptions. He’s also rushed for 3,387 yards and 43 touchdowns. That’s already the most rushing yards by an SEC QB. He’ll likely finish with the second-most passing yards in school history and is already second in passing touchdowns. He also has the second-most rushing yards in school history and already owns the school record for rushing touchdowns. He’s the SEC’s all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks and is tied for 7th (with some guy named Bo Jackson) for rushing touchdowns. And yep, he followed Prescott to become just the 3rd player in conference history with 3 seasons of 10+ and 10+.
If I told you that the guy replacing Prescott would finish number two on both the school’s all-time leading passing and rushing list, I think you’d say “sign me up. Let’s roll.”
I know he had some down moments this year. Many (myself included) vocally suggested he should be benched because he was holding the team back. But he was always able to bounce back from a poor performance. He was always able to deal with the criticism of his play by keeping his nose down and grinding to the next week without mouthing off or unloading on some doughboy calling for his job on twitter.
Regardless of how the rest of this season plays out, Fitzgerald should be remembered fondly for everything he’s accomplished and what he’s done for the program.
Appreciating Jordan Ta’amu
For Ta’amu, talk about a wild ride the past two years. Coming out of New Mexico Military Institute, he held just two Power-5 offers: from Ole Miss and Minnesota.
Of course, the easier route would have been to go to Minnesota, where he likely would’ve been named the starting quarterback after about a week of practice. Instead, he chose Ole Miss, which featured a firmly entrenched starting quarterback in rock star sophomore Shea Patterson. Ole Miss wasn’t recruiting Ta’amu to be the starting quarterback; it recruited him to be Patterson’s backup.
Picking Ole Miss over Minnesota and taking the far more difficult road speaks volumes about Ta’amu.
Sure enough, Patterson was injured halfway through the 2017 season, and Ta’amu took over. Not only did the offense not go belly up like everyone expected, but they actually improved under the quiet but confident Hawaiian and won 3 of their final 4 games to finish the season 6-6.
In the offseason, Patterson transferred to Michigan after the NCAA sanctions were announced. While the primary reason Patterson transferred was the bowl ban, don’t think that Ta’amu didn’t have a hand in that, either. There’s absolutely no guarantee Patterson would have beaten out Ta’amu for the starting job, and if they were judged simply by their play on the field and not their recruiting profile, Ta’amu was and is the superior quarterback.
Despite only starting 17 games, Ta’amu will finish 6th all-time in passing yards at Ole Miss. With another 169 yards, he’ll become just the second quarterback in school history to throw for 4,000 yards in a single season. If he throws 2 TD passes in the Egg Bowl, he’ll surpass Archie Manning for career TD passes.
His 2018 season should be remembered as one of the greatest statistical seasons of all-time for an Ole Miss quarterback. With one game remaining, he has thrown for 3,831 yards (second-best in the nation), averaging 9.6 yards per attempt (4th-best in the nation).
Ta’amu has helped guide the team through an extraordinarily difficult time. I know Ole Miss fans are disappointed with the results of 2018 and some will hold Ta’amu’s struggles against elite defenses against him, but can you even begin to imagine where Ole Miss would be right now if it weren’t for Ta’amu?
No, neither Fitzgerald nor Ta’amu were perfect this year. But give them credit, they each made far more positive plays than negative, and each handled all of it, the good times and the bad, with an extraordinary amount of class. Each displayed rare leadership qualities that were visible on and off the field, and the respect teammates showed them was authentic and genuine.
So, sit back and enjoy the Egg Bowl, folks. I know the stakes aren’t as high as they’ve been in years past, but we’ll have the luxury of watching two of the best quarterbacks either school has ever produced duke it out one more time for bragging rights in the Magnolia State.