By Mike Jones on December 28, 2018 at 8:00 am
This is Nick Fitzgerald. He is the Mississippi State offense. (© Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports)

We haven’t discussed it all that much but yeah: Iowa is playing in the Outback Bowl on January 1st, 2019. Oh, I’m sorry I meant that the Iowa Hawkeyes are playing in the Iowa Hawkeye Outback Bowl on January 1st, 2019. See, Iowa has played in the Outback Bowl 50% of the time in the last six seasons so it would only be appropriate that Iowa Hawkeyes be made part of the bowl name. You, the Iowa fan, should be familiar with how the Hawkeyes arrived here:

  • 3-0 non-conference season.
  • Soul crushing loss to Wisconsin (again).
  • Beatdowns of Minnesota, Indiana and Maryland.
  • Soul crushing loss to Penn State (again).
  • Typical inexplicable losses to Purdue and Northwestern.
  • Typical demolishing of Illinois.
  • And to close out the season, an inexplicably (and arguably inexcusably) thrilling game against a four-win Nebraska team, where Iowa won their only close game of the year.

That’s good for 8-4 (5-4) on the season and another trip to Tampa.

What we haven’t discussed is how Mississippi State arrived at the Outback Bowl. Actually, we haven’t discussed much of Mississippi State at all. So let’s do that.

The biggest story of the 2018 offseason for the Bulldogs was replacing head coach Dan Mullen, who left Starkville to become the head coach of the Florida Gators. To replace him they went north and got a guy Iowa fans should be familiar with: Joe Moorhead. Yes, the one-time offensive coordinator for the Penn State Nittany Lions who was responsible for the 2016 41-14 beat down and the 2017 21-19 soul-crushing defeat. Moorhead didn’t really have any ties to Mississippi State but he was one of the hottest assistants in the nation, so why not hire him?

Moorhead named Luke Getsy, who spent time under P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan and Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, as his offensive coordinator. On defense, he went with Bob Shoop, who also coached at Penn State and was most recently the defensive coordinator for Tennessee. I can neither confirm nor deny that he was named after a Salt-N-Pepa song.

The Bulldogs had a number of players named to preseason award watch lists but only two players were named preseason 1st team All-SEC: defensive end Montez Sweat and defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Do everything quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was also named 3rd team All-SEC and you should probably get used to his name because I’m going to mention it every three minutes.

Let's talk Bulldogs.

Stephen F. Austin, W, 63-6

We’ll sort of gloss over this for a few reasons. First off, Stephen F. Austin ended up being a 2-8 FCS team with a head coach that had to resign in scandal. Second off, Bulldog quarterback Nick Fitzgerald didn’t even play due to suspension. That leads us to…

@ Kansas State, W, 31-10

This ended up being Bill Snyder’s worst team since his return and the one that got him “retired” but hey, no one just walks into the Little Apple and gets an easy win, right? Wrong. Following a slow first quarter, where the teams were tied 3-3, Miss. State scored 21 unanswered points to take a 24-3 lead. K-State attempted to make it interesting with a touchdown but the Bulldogs weren’t having it. They scored another touchdown early in the 4th quarter and shut the Wildcat offense down.

Most of the damage was done by running back Kylin Hill, who rushed for 211 yards on 17 carries, and two touchdowns. Nick Fitzgerald didn’t have the most impressive passing line, 11/27 for 154 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, but did rush for 159 yards. Yes, he ran for more than he threw.

What’s more, the Bulldog defense held a usually proficient Bill Snyder program to 213 yards. That’s going to be a trend throughout the year.

Louisiana, W, 56-10

The Ragin’ Cajuns were a pretty good team this year but yeah, they’re still a Sun Belt team. Nick Fitzgerald threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 107 yards and four (4!) touchdowns. The Bulldogs put up 607 yards of offense and scored every time they possessed the ball in the first quarter. Is that bad?

@ Kentucky, L, 7-28

Now, we didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out that Kentucky was a pretty good football team. Also, did you know Mississippi State vs. Kentucky is a rivalry game? Who knew!? Now you do!

This game was also a lot closer than the final score indicated. It was actually 14-7 midway through the 4th quarter and the Bulldogs had the ball at the 50-yard line. The problem was that the Bulldogs had zero success rushing and had to rely on Nick Fitzgerald to throw the ball. This, as it turns out, is a really bad idea, and that drive ended with an interception and Wildcat touchdown. Kentucky tacked on another touchdown with less than five minutes on the clock and there you have it.

A Bulldog loss due to an inability to run the ball is something you’ll continue to see.

Florida, L, 6-13

Actually, the very same thing happened the next week. Mississippi State couldn’t run the ball and lost.

Do you remember this game? It was bad. Mississippi State didn’t even turn the ball over, they just couldn’t move it. They only amassed 202 yards of offense. Nick Fitzgerald threw for 98 yards. Kylin Hill rushed for 41. The only actual touchdown of the game came on a Florida trick play.

Auburn, W, 23-9

Nothing says getting back on track like beating a Top 10 team at home. Nick Fitzgerald only threw for 69 yards (nice) and an interception, but he rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns. He even broke Tim Tebow’s SEC rushing record. Kylin Hill added 126 rushing yards of his own. The true story of the game was the Bulldog defense, which held Auburn to 304 yards and forced two turnovers. Listen, if you can hold a Gus Malzahn offense to around 300 yards, you’re probably going to win the game.

@ LSU, L, 3-19

The good: Mississippi State was able to run the ball primarily thanks to Nick Fitzgerald’s 131 rushing yards!

The bad: Pretty much any time Fitzgerald threw the ball, it was picked off.

Fitzgerald had a quarterback rating of 9.8, thanks to a stat line of 8/24 for 59 yards, no touchdowns and four (4!) interceptions. He was basically a one-man show. The problem is that the one-man show is averse to throwing the football correctly. LSU didn’t even score a lot of points. They were actually outgained by the Bulldogs 260-239. The issue was Fitzgerald handing the ball away.

Fitz giveth, Fitz giveth away.

Texas A&M, W, 28-13

It would appear that Nick Fitzgerald won this game with [checks notes] his arm?! Yes, it turns out that Texas A&M had absolutely terrible pass defense this season, so that’s why Fitzgerald was able to throw for 241 yards and two touchdowns against them! As usual, the Bulldog defense effort was most impressive, as they held a Jimbo Fisher offense to less than 300 yards and 13 points.

Louisiana Tech, W, 45-3

Why are they playing non-conference games in November? Seriously? Is no one going to say anything about this?

@ Alabama, L, 0-24

It’s Alabama so there really isn’t anything to take away from that game.

Arkansas, W, 52-6

At this point in the piece, you’re probably noticing a trend about where all of Mississippi State’s offense comes from. Nick Fitzgerald only completed nine passes but four were for touchdowns. He rushed for another touchdown and 85 yards. So, yeah, he’s a one-man band.

@ Ole Miss, W, 35-3

And so we come to the Egg Bowl. This game wasn’t actually all that exciting through the first three quarters, as Ole Miss was a garbage-ass football team. As usual, the Bulldogs got most of their points threw Nick Fitzgerald and were looking to enter the 4th quarter with a 28-3 lead. And then this happened:

This was easily the most exciting part of an otherwise bad football game. It resulted in four Bulldog players being ejected. Cornerback Jamal Peters was ejected after he ripped off Ole Miss’s quarterback’s helmet. Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. was ejected not so much because of his involvement in the fight, but because both teams were hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and it was his second of the game. Another player, Cameron Dantzler, was wrongly ejected.

No worries, though, they’ll all be eligible for the bowl game.

All of that adds up to 8-4 (4-4) and a fourth-place finish in the SEC West. Every team they lost to won nine or more games and Alabama is…well…Alabama.

Most of this was dedicated to the Bulldog offense, but it was their defense that won them games. They finished 1st in scoring defense, 3rd in total defense, 6th in passing defense and 10th in rushing defense. Oh, you want additional defensive stats? They were 1st in team passing efficiency defense, 4th in red zone defense and 5th in 3rd down conversion percentage defense.  Three members of their defensive line were named to the year-end All-SEC teams.

All that defensive gushing aside, it’s clear what the Mississippi State offense is: Nick Fitzgerald. He leads the team in passing and rushing. Of the 226 yards they rush per game, he’s responsible for 93 of them. He leads the team in rushing touchdowns with 12. Actually, he leads the team in scoring, beating out the kicker. Of the 4,824 yards of Bulldog offense amassed this season, he’s responsible for 2,633 of it. That’s 55% of their entire offense.

The Bulldog’s Achilles heel on offense is if they have to depend on Fitzgerald throwing the ball. He only completed 52.6% of his passes this season and had 15 touchdowns to seven interceptions. In their four losses, they averaged only 104 yards per game. In those same four games, Fitzgerald went 46/102 (45%) for 427 yards (106 YPG) with no touchdowns and five interceptions. Stopping him is stopping the Bulldog offense.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

We’ll have more on the Outback Bowl as the game approaches.

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