STARKVILLE — With Elgton Jenkins in front of him and Aeris Williams walling off a defender to his right, Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald took off with the ball down the right side. BYU’s Micah Hannemann met him at the goal line and was quickly sent away by Fitzgerald’s left shoulder, the impact sending him to the ground as he scored.
With that play, a mere 10 minutes into the game the message was sent. For all the time spent on Fitzgerald the passer, both by MSU’s staff and by those projecting forward to the 2019 NFL Draft, BYU learned midway through the first quarter that Fitzgerald the runner was just as dangerous.
Saturday’s 35-10 win over BYU (1-6) set a new season high for Fitzgerald for single-game carries (15); his 103 yards was his 10th time running for more than 100, setting a new high for MSU (4-2) quarterbacks after his predecessor, Dak Prescott, did so nine times.
Nothing about the numbers after the fact struck MSU coach Dan Mullen in a bad way.
“Fifteen, that’s about right for him, I think,” he said. “I don’t want to go over it, but I’m good with it right at that mark.”
Maintaining just shy of 7 yards per carry over 15 carries from a quarterback is no easy task; Fitzgerald may have the Mullen scheme to thank for it.
Fitzgerald was the subject of designed quarterback runs throughout, including twice in MSU’s first possession, both times using the power concept. Power is an elementary run play which uses two lead blockers: the first blocker to the predetermined gap creates a crease by hitting the most immediate threat from the outside, and the second blocker hits that crease before the ball carrier to take out the first threat. Since Mullen’s system doesn’t use traditional fullbacks, those lead blockers can be pulling guard or centers, tight ends or in some cases running backs.
The second of those quarterback powers in the first possession was the previously mentioned 15-yard touchdown run.
On the second play of the next possession, Fitzgerald hit the BYU defense through a run-pass option. BYU linebackers overplayed the potential handoff to Williams; as Fitzgerald ran the other way and linebackers rushed back into position, he forced them to react to the possibility of a pass as he faked a throw to Deddrick Thomas on a screen; the hesitation opened an alley for him to gain six yards.
It’s plays like that, in Mullen’s eyes, that represent how MSU uses Fitzgerald the runner more than Fitzgerald the passer.
“Every week, people are going to play it differently,” Mullen said. “When you call a pass or a run-pass option, one of three things is going to happen and what they do dictates where the ball goes. It depends on the look they’re giving you; it’s more defense-related than offense related.”
Even while Fitzgerald was slicing through the BYU defense, MSU still showed a willingness to do just that — take the play where the defense allowed them as opposed to taking it to a certain player by design.
Fitzgerald’s rushing success forced BYU’s linebackers to stay in the box more and more, opening up multiple opportunities to throw to the perimeter. Fitzgerald took advantage early and often: bubble screens and other perimeter routes to slot receivers Keith Mixon and Deddrick Thomas led the two to combine for 91 yards on seven catches.
Therein, as Fitzgerald sees it, lies the beauty of MSU’s offense when it’s working as it best can. MSU clearly wanted to run against BYU — it wouldn’t have done so 53 times if it didn’t — but it’s always working to make each attempt effective.
“They had to respect the run inside and we had great blocking on the perimeter,” Fitzgerald said. “If it wasn’t a great read to throw it out there, we were blocking well so we knew we could run.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson