September 26, 2017 10:43:59 AM
STARKVILLE -- Even with Dak Prescott on campus, Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald could still throw for 90 yards in a given game. In the 2015 season, Prescott's last while Fitzgerald was a backup, Fitzgerald had that threshold in two of the three games he completed a pass in.
Against Georgia, for just the second time as a true, full-time starter, Fitzgerald threw for less than that.
What was expected to be a season of progress for Fitzgerald, his second as MSU's starter, hit its first major speed bump at Sanford Stadium as Fitzgerald threw for 83 yards with two interceptions in a 31-3 loss. It was a stark departure from the norm for Fitzgerald as his climb up the MSU record books was rapid in his first three games; getting him back to form is a top priority as No. 24 MSU (3-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) meets No. 13 Auburn (3-1, 1-0 SEC) 5 p.m. Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"A couple of dropped passes, a missed throw here or there," MSU coach Dan Mullen said after the game. "I thought he did OK getting us in the right reads and right checks. I thought he missed some things and maybe over managed some things, but we'll look at it."
Mullen expanded on the term over manage Monday, saying he thinks Fitzgerald may have been too quick in getting through his reads. As opposed to following the design of plays -- going from the predetermined first option to the second, third and so on -- Fitzgerald may have sized up his first option and immediately went to the final resort, known as the check down.
That would be one explanation why tight ends served such a small role in the passing attack against Georgia. In MSU's three games prior, tight ends targeted on 19.4, 25 and 17.3 percent of MSU's pass attempts against Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech and LSU, respectively. Against Georgia, tight ends were targeted on three of 33 attempts, just nine percent of the time.
It would also explain why MSU's primary receiver, Donald Gray, received so many targets against Georgia. The team's receptions leader was targeted nine times in Athens; before that, no MSU receiver had been targeted more than six times in a game this year.
All things considered, that's an easy fix involving only one player. Mullen sees a fix that will require more effort.
"We have to get more downfield, too," he said.
MSU's 3.1 yards per pass attempt and 6.9 yards per completion were its worst of the season in which, even after the Georgia game, MSU is averaging 6.2 yards per attempt and 10.9 per completion. The numbers from the Georgia game are well below MSU's standards for the previous three years, where MSU got as high as 8.6 yards per attempts and averaged 12.7 yards per completion in the three years prior.
"We have to execute a little cleaner. We had some shots but missed some protections; we had guys open and missed the protection," Mullen said. "We had guys 1-on-1 and I don't think we won one 50-50 ball all day, and you got to win some of those."
Fitzgerald doesn't view it as direly as his coach does.
"We didn't have to throw much deep balls in the first three games," he said. "We didn't have to get big chunks, we were consistently moving the ball 5, 10 yards at a time. I don't think we have to throw it deep, by any means, but more downfield shots will open up more of the run game."
What is undeniable is the aforementioned running success cannot come without at least something to offer through the air, even if not downfield as Mullen visualizes. Mullen knows that, and also knows teams may build their game plans around testing MSU's ability to throw downfield.
He's ok with that.
"I think that's dangerous because I think we can win down the field, we just didn't win the 1-on-1s," Mullen said. "If we win some of those 1-on-1s down the field Saturday might be a little bit different."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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