Consistency at the quarterback position is one of the most fundamental aspects of a winning football program, a reality which weighed on the mind of Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen this offseason.
The Bulldogs had been blessed to have Dak Prescott under center for the past few seasons. Prescott, now with the Dallas Cowboys after being taken in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, threw for 9,376 yards, 70 touchdowns and just 20 interceptions in four seasons at Mississippi State. He led the Bulldogs to a 10-3 record in 2014 and a 9-4 record last season, which included a win over North Carolina State in the Belk Bowl.
Prescott also added a dual-threat dimension to Mississippi State’s offense, making him even more valuable to Mullen’s team. He rushed for 2,521 yards and 41 touchdowns during his time with the Bulldogs, while also hauling in four catches for 88 total yards and three touchdowns.
Heading into this season, it was a given that the program would deal with some growing pains trying to replace Prescott. Losing the season opener at home to the South Alabama Jaguars, 21-20? That was hardly a given.
Mississippi State was heavily favored against the school whose acronym is “USA,” but the Jaguars roared back from a 17-0 halftime deficit to stun the Bulldogs.
Inconsistent quarterback play was a primary reason.
Mullen decided to start sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald against South Alabama, but he was pulled after his first two series ended in punts. Mississippi State then went with junior Damian Williams, who helped the Bulldogs build their lead, but couldn’t get his team on the board in the fourth quarter.
Yes, two missed field goals drastically impacted the Bulldogs’ chances of winning, but Williams couldn’t close the deal against a Sun Belt team, either.
That reality is a stark contrast to what the Bulldogs did this past weekend against SEC foe South Carolina. The Bulldog beat the Gamecocks, 27-14, to even their record at 1-1.
Once again, Mississippi State’s defense allowed a big comeback — South Carolina was down 24-0 until five seconds left in the third quarter — but it was what Mullen decided to do on offense that was the difference-maker for the Bulldogs.
He again called on Fitzgerald to start, this time sticking with the 6-foot-5, 230- pound quarterback from Richmond Hill, Georgia, for the duration of the game.
???? TRICK PLAY ALERT ????
Nick Fitzgerald throws to Fred Ross
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 10, 2016
How did the former three-star recruit respond to his coach officially handing him the keys to the offense and not taking them back?
Fitzgerald set a school record for rushing yards by a quarterback, running 17 times for 195 yards (11.5 yards per carry). His long rush went for 74 yards, and he also completed 19-of-29 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns (with one interception).
“It was kind of what I saw based on last week,” Mullen said after the game when asked about starting Fitzgerald. “He had been graded a little bit higher all through training camp. That decision led him to play for a straight four quarters. I thought he came out and played fairly well. He has a couple of things in the throwing game, and managing and learning from reps. All of that just comes from more experience.”
Geaux-ing On The Road
Life won’t get any easier for Mississippi State in Week 3. The Bulldogs have to travel to Baton Rouge to take on the No. 20 LSU Tigers, sitting at 1-1 after a 34-13 win over Jacksonville State.
The Tigers lost to Wisconsin to start the season, 16-14, but they should still be considered a contender for the SEC title — especially as long as Leonard Fournette is healthy. He did not play against Jacksonville State in order to rest an ankle injury, but it sounds as if he’ll be ready to go under the lights in Death Valley.
"We expect Leonard Fournette to be back and ready to go," Miles said after holding Fournette out as a precaution Saturday with ankle injury.
— Glenn Guilbeau (@LSUBeatTweet) September 12, 2016
Mississippi State will have its hands full with Fournette and his stellar backup Derrius Guice (who rushed for 155 yards and a touchdown last weekend in place of the Heisman contender), but LSU may have some defensive issues of its own if Mullen continues to stick with Fitzgerald — which he should.
Jacksonville State dual-threat quarterback Eli Jenkins rushed 18 times for 82 yards against LSU and also threw for 248 yards, a touchdown and one interception. LSU obviously had trouble containing Jenkins’ dual-threat nature, and that’s something Mississippi State can use to its advantage with Fitzgerald running the show on the road.
He appears to be the answer for Mississippi State at quarterback, but we’ll have to wait and see if Mullen continues to stick with him.