STARKVILLE — Since he was 6 years old, Nick Fitzgerald dreamed of starting and winning a Southeastern Conference game.
From the quarterback position, he could imagine himself leading his team to victory and his teammates mobbing him as the final seconds ticked off.
Fitzgerald saw that dream come true Saturday night.
In his second career start, Fitzgerald turned in a record-setting performance in the Mississippi State football team’s 27-14 victory against South Carolina at Davis Wade Stadium.
“I finally made my 6-year-old self proud,” Fitzgerald said. “It feels great.”
MSU coach Dan Mullen told Fitzgerald on Sunday he was going to start and that he was going to play the entire game. The sophomore had the confidence of his coaching staff and he let that confidence lead him. He said he took practice seriously and approached it with a different attitude, knowing he was going to have to prepare harder than he did last week.
Last week, Fitzgerald started and played in three series and was 0 of 3 with 11 yards rushing. Junior Damian Williams took most of the snaps in a 21-20 loss to South Alabama.
Mullen said Fitzgerald is the starter moving forward.
“I thought he came out and he played fairly well,” Mullen said. “He’s got a couple of things here and there in the throw game just managing and learning from reps and some different throws, but a lot of that comes from experience.”
Mullen said he met with Fitzgerald and Williams when he made his decision. Mullen said there was nothing Williams did that prevented him from getting the job.
Fitzgerald was 19 of 29 for 178 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against South Carolina. He led MSU (1-1, 1-0 SEC) with 195 rushing yards, the most ever by a MSU quarterback, on 17 carries.
Fitzgerald didn’t hesitate to tuck and run. He had several big plays, including a 74-yard run, to keep drives alive. He also ran out of necessity sometimes due to the pocket collapsing.
“I had great blocking and people were throwing their bodies out there,” Fitzgerald said. “I just followed them.”
Mullen said fans will see Fitzgerald running more often.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Fitzgerald made an impression on the first offensive series. On the first play, Fitzgerald hit Fred Ross for an 18-yard reception. He then connected with Brandon Holloway for a 9-yard reception. Fitzgerald hit Ross for a 6-yard touchdown on third-and-5 to give the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead with 11 minutes remaining in the opening quarter.
Fitzgerald was 3 of 3 for 33 yards and had 10 yards rushing on two carries on the first series.
“The train kept rolling,” said Ross, who had six catches for 56 yards and one touchdown. “Nick did a great job. He was running the ball, he was throwing the ball, and he looked good out there. He looked confident, and that was the best thing about it.”
Fitzgerald was used as a decoy on the second scoring drive. The Richmond Hill, Georgia, native tossed to Ross behind him. Ross tucked his head and it looked like he was about to take off and the Gamecocks (1-1, 1-1) bit on the trick play. But Ross stopped and fired to the corner of the end zone for a wide open Donald Gray for a 17-yard touchdown with 12 minutes, 15 seconds left in the second quarter.
Fitzgerald pushed MSU’s lead to 21-0 when he hit Jordan Thomas for a 3-yard touchdown with 3:21 remaining in the first half. The ball was under-thrown, but the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Thomas ripped it away from linebacker D.J. Smith.
Fitzgerald wasn’t done. After forcing South Carolina to punt, MSU took over at its 22-yard line. Fitzgerald was 2 of 3 for 39 yards and had 19 yards rushing on three carries on the drive. The drive led to a 27-yard Westin Graves field goal that made it 24-0 at halftime.
“Nick did a good job of preparing for the game,” Mullen said.
After a 63-minute lightning delay, the Bulldogs stalled in the second half. Graves’ 28-yard field goal was the Bulldogs’ only score.
MSU will play at 6 p.m. Saturday at LSU. ESPN2 will broadcast the game live.
Now that the reality of seeing his dream realized has hit him, Fitzgerald realizes more will be expected of him.
“I’m a lot more sore than I thought I would be,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t really remember how much I imagined back then, but I hope it was this good.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.