QB Nick Fitzgerald Could Be Headache For Hawkeyes
By Joey Johnston:
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was on a crash course through December, learning all he could about the Mississippi State Bulldogs, the opponent for the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl match up at Raymond James Stadium.
It didn't take long for Ferentz to form an opinion on Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State's senior quarterback.
"He's outstanding,'' Ferentz said. "When you play against a running quarterback like that, it's like playing against a 12-man offense. It's going to take a total team effort. He's a real headache.''
But for Mississippi State fans, Fitzgerald has been like an answer to some unrealistic prayers. After all, following the 2014 season, how could the Bulldogs find a quality player to replace Dak Prescott, the school's all-everything performer.
Along came Fitzgerald.
Pretty soon, he was off to the races.
Heading into the Outback Bowl, Fitzgerald has accounted for 3,504 career rushing yards, the SEC record for a quarterback. He has rushed for 45 touchdowns, a school record and fourth-best all-time in the SEC, while being responsible for 99 scores.
First-year Bulldogs coach Joe Moorhead, the former Penn State offensive coordinator who helped to develop Trace McSorley, said he was excited to inherit a player with the skill set of Fitzgerald. Generally, Fitzgerald hasn't disappointed.
Fitzgerald rushed for 1,018 yards, galloping past the 100-yard mark against Kansas State (159), Louisiana (107), Auburn (195), LSU (131), Louisiana Tech (107) and Ole Miss (117). That gave him 20 career 100-yard rushing games, another record for an SEC quarterback.
Fitzgerald also completed 52.6 percent of his passes for 1,615 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
"Trace McSorley was a tough guy to defend, and this guy (Fitzgerald) is the same way,'' said Ferentz, drawing upon his experience against Penn State during Moorhead's two seasons (2016-17) in Happy Valley.
Moorhead was justifiably proud of Fitzgerald's ground production, but didn't limit his enthusiasm to only that aspect of the player's game.
"I mean, he's the SEC's all-time leading rusher at the quarterback position so he has done a fantastic job running the football,'' Moorhead said. "But we've really been concentrating on his development as a passer this year. He had to change systems and we asked him to do more in throwing the ball. He has been playing like a complete quarterback.''
At first glance, you'd never know Fitzgerald was an elite ground-gainer. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he looks like a classic drop-back passer. In fact, recruiters weren't sure what to make of Fitzgerald when he came out of Richmond Hill High School in Georgia. As a triple-option quarterback, he was lightly recruited by many schools (including his beloved Georgia Bulldogs, who he supported as a fan).
But Dan Mullen, then the Mississippi State head coach, believed he saw a potential gem.
"Nick seems like the prototypical guy you think of under center, dropping back seven steps, slinging the ball around,'' Moorhead said. "But the reality is he does combine excellent arm strength with a unique ability for a big person to run the ball.''
Fitzgerald's career took a major hit during the 2017 Egg Bowl rivalry game against Ole Miss, when he broke his right ankle on Thanksgiving Night and underwent surgery the following day. Fitzgerald resumed running on March 7 and went through spring practice in a limited role.
But this season, he hit the field running - literally.
When Moorhead got the Mississippi State job, he sent an introductory text to Fitzgerald. Moorhead said the player needed to research his ring size and clear a place on his mantel for the Heisman Trophy.
Fitzgerald fell short of those lofty goals. But with another outstanding individual performance - and a victory in the Outback Bowl - he will solidify his status as one of the most productive and beloved Bulldogs.
Ferentz doesn't need any reminders about Fitzgerald's value to Mississippi State.
"He's a winner and a threat any time he has the ball in his hands,'' Ferentz said. "He will be a problem for us.''