At the conclusion of their game in Baton Rouge against the LSU Tigers, the Mississippi State Bulldogs had hit rock bottom offensively.
I don’t think even the most loyal and optimistic of the Bulldogs faithful could/would disagree with that assessment, and much of the blame, whether right or wrong, fell on senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.
It’s no secret that he has been awful in each of the Bulldogs’ three losses this year, and he was at his very worst against the Tigers (8-of-24, 59 yards, 4 INTs). His inability to complete passes downfield was quite literally holding the team back. Had the Bulldogs managed even an average passing attack against Kentucky, Florida or LSU, I think they’re undefeated at this point because the defense has been every bit as good as advertised.
Fitzgerald’s play was so bad in that game, many (including myself) called for head coach Joe Moorhead to bench the embattled senior and insert sophomore Keytaon Thompson into the lineup to try to salvage what was left of the season. Well, I fully admit that it’s a good thing Moorhead didn’t listen to either myself or the other pundits out there, because ever since that game against LSU, Fitzgerald has been playing arguably the best football of his historic career.
Now, I know it has been only two games, and neither Texas A&M nor Louisiana Tech will ever be confused with the ’85 Bears. But give both Moorhead and Fitzgerald credit for turning things around in a short amount of time.
Fitzgerald’s play has been drastically improved the last two weeks, especially when compared with the four previous weeks, which included three losses. During the rough stretch, he completed 44 percent of his passes for 371 yards with 0 TDs and 6 INTs, averaging 3.74 yards per attempt. The offense as a whole accumulated 1,081 yards, averaging 4.27 yards per play and just 9.75 points per game.
The past two weeks, however, Fitzgerald has completed 62 percent of his passes for 484 yards with 6 TDs and 0 INTs, averaging 9.68 yards per attempt. The offense as a whole has accumulated 916 yards, averaging 7.76 yards per play and 36.5 points per game. Perhaps the Jekyll and Hyde-like offense will continue to seesaw, or perhaps it’s starting to really mesh at just the right time. Just in time for by far their most daunting test of the season — playing on the road against the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, fresh off the heels of a 29-0 drubbing of No. 3 LSU.
This raises the question: Do the Bulldogs have any chance at all of upsetting Alabama?
Well, mathematically, yes, it is possible. Highly improbable and unlikely, but there is statistically a chance. Both teams will, in fact, begin the game tied at 0-0.
First, let’s look on the bright side of things.
As indicated above, the offense is statistically playing its best ball of the season right now, and Fitzgerald has finally gotten into a rhythm passing. This will be absolutely paramount to giving themselves any chance of beating Alabama, because no one is going to beat the Tide with the ground game alone. You have to be able to complete passes downfield and stretch them vertically to be able to open up any kind of room to run.
Also on the bright side is the Bulldogs defense, which has been nothing short of fantastic this year. They’re currently No. 2 in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 12.3 points per game, and are sixth nationally in both yards allowed per game (278.7) and per play (4.3). They’re 17th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (111.4) and seventh in passing yards allowed per game (167.2). Guys like Montez Sweat (9 sacks), Jeffery Simmons (10.5 TFLs), Erroll Thompson (53 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INTs) and Cam Dantzler (2 INTs, 7 passes defended) are enjoying All SEC-caliber seasons.
Hey, an offense that’s finally hitting its stride behind a senior QB playing very well and a defense that is easily among the best in the country has to present some kind of challenge to the reigning national champions, don’t they?
On paper, yes. Watching the games makes me a bit less confident, because I don’t know how anyone could watch the Alabama-LSU game and not come away wondering if this Alabama team is the best college football team of the last 20 years, on par with the ’01 Miami, ’04 Southern Cal and ’08 Florida squads.
Simply put, the Bulldogs will have to play a flawless game, and they’ll need Alabama to have one of those nights where everything can and does go wrong. Fitzgerald will need to literally play the best game of his life. I think he’ll need to average more than 8 yards per pass attempt and complete no less than 60 percent of his passes with no turnovers. He’ll need at least another 100 yards or so on the ground.
Running backs Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams, who have practically disappeared the past two weeks behind the offensive juggernaut that has been Fitzgerald, will need to make the most of their opportunities when they get the ball, averaging more than 5 yards per carry and adding a couple of big runs that can flip field position.
The offensive line will have find a way to buy Fitzgerald time, particularly on the edges, where they’ve struggled in protection all year. The interior of the offensive line, which is an obvious strength, will have to win at the point of attack and be able to generate a push against a very talented Alabama defensive line. Mitigating defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who is playing out of his mind right now, will be a daunting challenge.
Offensively, the Bulldogs need to complete passes downfield to stretch the defense and open up the rushing attack, and they’ll need the rushing attack to chew up clock and keep Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa off the field.
Defensively, they’ll need to find a way to do what no one else has been able to do all year, and that’s stop Tagovailoa. State has a talented secondary, but it’s not as talented or well-coached as LSU’s, and Tagovailoa just carved them up for 295 yards and 2 TDs. They’ll need the defensive line to consistently generate pressure by rushing just four guys so they can drop the linebackers into zone coverage, and they’ll need career-defining nights from guys like Sweat and Simmons.
And, of course, they can’t beat themselves and make things any easier for Alabama, so win the turnover battle, limit penalties, win on third down, convert in the red zone, make some big plays on special teams, etc.
It’s not likely that Mississippi State walks out of Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night as victors, but it’s not impossible, either. If they do somehow manage to upset the Tide, it’ll go down as the greatest win in program history and will be remembered in Starkville until the end of time.
Perhaps just as important, though, will be playing a good game and continuing to show improvement under Moorhead. To prove that they’re trending in the right direction and to prove to recruits that this is a program that can hang with the big boys, and maybe, just maybe, if they have you (insert 4- and 5-star prospect name here), they’ll be able to beat Alabama next time around.