STARKVILLE — Donald Gray had to do a double take.
The Mississippi State junior wide receiver tilted his head and looked on in shock when he learned the MSU football team set a school record for yards in a game Saturday. Gray couldn’t believe his team gained 669 yards, or that MSU and Samford combined for 1,296.
Turns out MSU needed almost every yard to come away with a 56-41 victory against Samford on Homecoming at Davis Wade Stadium.
“I might shed a tear,” Gray said with a laugh. “It feels great to be a part of that. I can’t stop smiling.”
The previous high for MSU was 647 yards in a 62-13 victory against Northwestern State last season.
Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald was 20 of 35 for 417 yards and five touchdowns. He also rushed for a game-high 119 yards and two touchdowns. The performance helped him join Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (2012) and Ole Miss’ Archie Manning (1969) as the only Southeastern Conference quarterbacks to pass for 400-plus yards and run for 100-plus yards in a game.
Fitzgerald tied the school record of five touchdown passes in a game. Dak Prescott set the mark in 2015 against Arkansas. Fitzgerald also tied the school record with seven touchdowns responsible for (Prescott in 2015 against Arkansas). Fitzgerald’s 536 yards is the second in school history only to Prescott’s 554 against Arkansas last season.
“That’s awesome,” said Fitzgerald, who also threw two interceptions. “He was obviously a phenomenal player and now in the NFL. It’s always a big deal when you can do anything as close as he did it.
“I just had guys go up and make plays. They were open and I was able to just put it where it needed to be and they just finished it off. I had a lot of time to throw the ball, the guys were blocking their butts of.”
Gray tied the school record with three touchdown catches (Chad Bumphis and Sammy Milner). The Memphis, Tennessee, native had four catches for a career-high 207 yards. It was the most yards by an MSU receiver since Jameon Lewis had 220 against Rice in the 2013 Liberty Bowl.
Gray entered the game with 21 catches for 274 yards and one touchdown. He had one catch for -3 yards against Kentucky last week.
“You’re pretty much judged of how you bounce back from a bad game,” Gray said. “I just wanted to show everybody that really wasn’t who I was and I trusted my teammates.
“It feels awesome. I’ve just got to keep working. I’ve waited a long time for this. I think I was long overdue for this.”
Fitzgerald hit Gray for a 71-yard touchdown to put MSU (3-5) ahead 14-7 with 9 minutes, 19 seconds remaining in the first quarter. He found Gray for a 74-yard score late in the second quarter to push MSU’s lead to 28-20.
“I give Fitz credit on two of them,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said. “He threw big-time passes, he hit him in stride on the sideline, and Donald was able to break free and run away. Fitz dropped the ball in beautifully. After two, he felt pretty good he was going to launch one up there and see what Donald could do. Donald made a great adjustment on the ball to come back to get it and make a play to score. Donald’s been a big play guy for us.”
Gray adjusted on an underthrown ball by Fitzgerald on his final touchdown. Surrounded by two defenders, Gray came back for the ball, made a leaping catch, and avoided the defenders en route to a 51-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“He’s just so explosive,” Fitzgerald said. “He’ll jump over six guys to make a catch one handed, behind the back with eyes closed. He’s just a playmaker. He’s going to do everything he can, sacrifice his body if he needs to, to go make a play for you.”
Fitzgerald said the vertical passing game wasn’t a big part of the game plan, but he said MSU decided to test Samford’s secondary after his first touchdown to Gray. Gray said Samford played a lot of man-to-man coverage and the safeties rolled down and the corners bailed.
Gray said the coaches saw the coverage in the press box and relayed the information down to the field.
“You’re kind of drooling at the mouth like a dog when they see a toy or something. That’s just how it is,” Gray said.
Fred Ross caught an 11-yard touchdown, while Malik Dear put MSU on the board with a 26-yard touchdown on the first drive.
MSU set the school record with 29 first downs. MSU’s previous high in yards was 598 in a 47-35 victory against Massachusetts on Sept. 25.
MSU will look for the same offensive output when it plays host to No. 9 Texas A&M at 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPN, ESPN2, or SEC Network).
“I’m glad we were able to do something like that. At least we got the win behind us,” Gray said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.