Fitzgerald’s feet lead No. 18 Mississippi St on win streak
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi State’s formula for offensive success has become fairly simple this season.
If Nick Fitzgerald is running, the Bulldogs are probably winning.
Mississippi State’s bruising 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback has run for at least 100 yards in each of the past four games — all wins. Now the 18th-ranked Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference, CFP No. 16) and Fitzgerald will take on No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0, CFP No. 2), which has one of the nation’s top defenses.
Fitzgerald is well aware of the challenge. He had a miserable game in last year’s 51-3 loss to the Crimson Tide , but hopes a year of experience and growth will lead to a different result on Saturday.
“There should never be a time when you line up across from someone and think you can’t beat them,” Fitzgerald said. “I have full confidence in our team that we can win. They’re an extremely good football team, tops in the country. They have been for a while, and they play really well.
“You have to not worry about the name on their chest and just go out there and play your game.”
Mississippi State’s game — at least on offense — is at its best when Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams are gaining big chunks of yards on the ground. Fitzgerald leads the team with 801 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound Williams has 772 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
Fitzgerald said Williams’ role in the offense is hard to overstate.
“Even when he isn’t getting the ball, he’s always going 100 percent, no matter what, whether he has the ball in his hand or not,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s huge. It’s really selfless of him to play like that. It’s really big time for a guy to act that way.”
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said even with Fitzgerald’s success on the ground, very few plays are specifically designed as quarterback runs.
“A lot of it is option plays, the defense trying to take other people away allows him to run the ball,” Mullen said. “We have less quarterback runs with him than any other quarterback we’ve had.”
Mississippi State’s success as a run-based, option-style offense has been a constant during Mullen’s nine-year tenure with the Bulldogs. During the early years, the Chris Relf-Vick Ballard combo helped push the program to a higher profile in the SEC. A few years later, the Dak Prescott-Josh Robinson combo led the Bulldogs to 10 wins and the No. 1 ranking in the country for five weeks.
Now it’s Fitzgerald and Williams. This weekend, they’ll have the chance to do something Mississippi State has never done under Mullen: Beat Alabama.
Alabama hasn’t had much trouble stopping the run so far this season. The defense gives up just 75.8 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 1st in the SEC and second in the country. Still, Fitzgerald has the Tide’s attention.
“Nick Fitzgerald is one of those actual dual-threat quarterbacks,” Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “He has shown a lot of times he can get outside the pocket and be able to extend plays. It’s going to be a challenge for our defense and I feel like we will be ready for it.”
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this story.