Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) runs the ball against the Arkansas Razorbacks during the fourth quarter at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday. MSU defeated Arkansas 52-6. Photo by: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
November 17, 2018 9:58:32 PM
STARKVILLE -- The most dramatic -- or you might say traumatic -- play in Mississippi State's 52-6 romp over Arkansas Saturday came on a 16-yard run about a minute into the fourth quarter with the Bulldogs already leading by four touchdowns.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald slipped out of the pocket and, in his usual fashion, pin-balled off a variety of Arkansas defenders for a first down at the Razorbacks' 9 yard-line.
Up in the stands, the roar of approval gave way to an anxious murmur when it was apparent that Fitzgerald had not bounced back to his feet as he always does.
Bulldog fans had seen this before, of course. In last year's Egg Bowl, Fitzgerald went down and stayed down, suffering a badly dislocated ankle that led to a bitter loss to their upstate rivals.
So, for a few worrisome minutes Saturday afternoon as the MSU training staff rushed out to attend to their stricken QB, Bulldog fans mulled that bit of deja vu and perhaps wondered what the heck Fitzgerald was doing still playing in a game that was, for all intents and purposes, over soon after halftime.
After a few minutes, Fitzgerald got to his feet and trotted toward the sideline as the remainder of the 57,772 fans in Davis Wade Stadium sighed and worried about whether their quarterback would be healthy for that Egg Bowl rematch five days hence.
On the next play, backup Keytaon Thompson's 19-yard TD pass was wiped out by a holding penalty.
Fitzgerald trotted on the field and hit Austin Williams for a 19-yard TD pass, his fourth of the game.
That sequence, MSU coach Joe Moorhead said, pretty much sums up Fitzgerald's career at MSU. In his three years as a starter, it hasn't always been pretty -- his first start lasted just three, three-out-out series -- and there have been times when his abilities have been open for debate.
He's gotten knocked around a lot, had some notable failures and jaw-dropping success.
He has failed and he has prevailed.
And on Saturday, senior day for Fitzgerald and 19 of his fellow MSU players, the one quality that he has consistently displayed may have been most evident in that short fourth-quarter sequence when matters had already been decided.
"It was absolutely representative of Nick's competitiveness and style of play," said Moorhead. "He's a guy that's going to play 100 percent, 100 percent of the time."
For his part, the ever-stoic senior quarterback seemed oblivious to the angst his brief exit had caused the home crowd.
"It was a run play and I kind of got thrown to the ground on my face," he said. "There was this big baseball-size clump of grass that just stuck to my face(mask) and I couldn't get it out. So I just sat there, trying to get it off my helmet. Finally, the training staff came out and got it off and I came out. I was completely fine."
Getting thrown to ground on his face is something completely fine for Fitzgerald. He's the Timex watch of quarterbacks: He takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin', as the old advertisement goes.
He seems to enjoy the pounding.
In his 43 games, Fitzgerald has kept the ball and the punishment that often goes with it 563 times. His 3,391 rushing yards are the most ever for an SEC quarterback and his career 43 rushing TDs are second among SEC quarterbacks.
But it has been his passing that has at times drawn the most criticism. His career 57.4 completion rate is, well, pedestrian and, probably as much as anything, explains MSU's offensive inconsistency.
Including Saturday, State has scored more than 40 points in four games. But it has also scored fewer than 10 points in four games. It adds up to a 7-4 record, not bad, but certainly not what had been expected from this team.
Getting knocked around like a pinata, Fitzgerald can take in stride.
But the ups and downs are far more difficult to swallow.
"Sometimes, you see things the right way," he said. "Sometimes you're making all the reads the right way. Sometimes you're struggling."
With just two games left in his career -- Thursday's Egg Bowl at Ole Miss and a bowl game -- Fitzgerald is still looking for the consistency that has eluded himself and the Bulldogs throughout the year.
Whether the Bulldogs find that consistency in the two remaining games is not certain.
But there is one thing you may rely on with confidence.
"Nick has got a bulldog spirit and a bulldog toughness to him," Moorhead said. "That's been true of every single game he's played."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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