TUSCALOOSA – After two previous go-rounds against Alabama’s traditionally-stout defense, Nick Fitzgerald knows what to expect Saturday afternoon inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“All together, all around, they’re the best defense we’re going to face this year,” the Mississippi State senior quarterback said this week, according to 247Sports.com. “They’re fast, they’re gap sound, and they don’t do a lot of stuff, but they know exactly how to line up to every look you’re going to give them. They’re going to run each and every play that they’ve seen you run all season, they’re going to walk through it at least once. And they’re going to have a great scheme.”
Of course, by the same token, the top-ranked Crimson Tide (9-0, 6-0 SEC) knows exactly what it’s going up against with Fitzgerald, who holds the Southeastern Conference’s all-time career rushing mark for a quarterback (3,325 yards).
“We’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for Nick Fitzgerald,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said Monday. “He played really well against us last year and is a dual-threat quarterback who has the capability of running, whether it’s a quarterback run or pulling the ball down or pulling it on a zone option play or whatever. … This guy’s got to be one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.”
Through eight games, Fitzgerald ranks second in the SEC in rushing, averaging 104.9 rushing yards per game this season. He has gained 839 yards on 115 carries (5.41 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns on the ground.
By comparison, Alabama’s top two leading rushers, sophomore Najee Harris and senior Damien Harris, have 572 and 542 rushing yards on 84 and 87 carries, respectively, with 10 combined touchdowns so far this season.
“It’s very hard preparing for (Fitzgerald),” Tide junior nickel back Shyheim Carter said. “It’s very hard trying to stop him from passing the ball, and as a runner, it’s kind of complicated, but I’m sure we’ll get it done.”
Fitzgerald’s ability to run, especially out of zone-read or RPO concepts, adds an extra dimension of difficulty for Carter at the star position, which plays closer to the line of scrimmage.
“Depending on what the play is, I have to read my keys,” Carter said. “If it’s a run, I have to show up for the run. If it’s not, I have to get back in coverage.”
Working within first-year Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead’s multi-dimensional spread attack that he brought from Penn State, Fitzgerald’s results have been inconsistent much of the season, including a four-interception game against LSU three weeks ago.
As a passer, Fitzgerald is among the worst statistical quarterbacks in the SEC, ranking dead last in completion percentage (50.8) and quarterback rating (113.78) to go along with 1,252 passing yards (156.5 per game) and 10 touchdowns to 7 interceptions.
The last two weeks, though, he’s has shown improvement, completing 31-of-50 passes (62 percent) for 484 yards and six touchdowns to no interceptions in wins over Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech.
“There’s been some highs and lows, I think. Obviously, being suspended the first game certainly didn’t help to get him rolling,” Moorhead said Wednesday. “I think he performed well against Kansas State and had a good game against Lafayette, then hit some bumps in the road and kind of played inconsistently through the next few. But I think he’s played his best football, and most complete football, particularly as a passer, against A&M and Louisiana Tech.”
Of course, Alabama’s defense provides a much greater challenge than either of those aforementioned teams, and has proven capable of slowing Fitzgerald down.
In the two previous matchups, the Tide defense has limited Fitzgerald to just 40 percent passing (23-of-57 combined) for 303 yards and zero touchdowns through the air. He hasn’t fared much better on the ground, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry and one touchdown.
That said, Alabama’s defenders aren’t overlooking a capable Fitzgerald.
“He’s an amazing quarterback, man,” sophomore nose guard Quinnen Williams said. ”He can do both, run the ball efficiently and pass the ball efficiently.”
But while his versatility can certainly create a challenge, it’s nothing the Tide hasn’t dealt with in the past, even within Moorhead’s new scheme.
“He can do a lot. He can run, he can pass. (But) it’s like any other quarterback for us,” sophomore safety Xavier McKinney said. “A lot of quarterbacks can do a lot of different things. We have to prepare the right way and, hopefully, we can get some stops against him.”