STARKVILLE — Nearly four minutes remained on the clock when freshman right tackle Stewart Reese left the bench and made his way to the fence between him and the bleachers.
Reese went with one purpose: to give his gloves to a young fan. On Saturday, Reese and MSU’s offensive linemen deserved to be the fan favorites.
The offensive line controlled play to the tune of 282 rushing yards and gave quarterback Nick Fitzgerald enough time to complete 69 percent of his passes in a 45-7 victory against Kentucky in a Southeastern Conference game at Davis Wade Stadium.
“You’re seeing a lot of young guys start to grow up on the field,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said of a unit bookended with freshmen.
Freshman left tackle Greg Eiland also started Saturday for the injured Martinas Rankin.
The performance by the offensive line was a far cry from the showings against Georgia and Auburn, when MSU ran for 4.4 yards per carry, well below its season average of 5.71 yards entering Saturday’s game. Since the bye week, MSU (5-2, 2-2) has averaged 5.8 yards per carry and has rushed for 306 and 282 yards, respectively, in wins against BYU and Kentucky (5-2, 2-2).
Mullen said the difference is experience.
“We had to start two freshmen tackles on the road in the SEC, and that’s tough,” Mullen said. “The last two weeks we didn’t have a senior playing on the offensive line. Those guys are starting to get a little more experience, get more comfortable. The more you play, the more comfortable you are.
“It sounds easy, you say, ‘Hey, go block him,’ but they’re moving everywhere, they’re blitzing, they’re coming from all over the place. You see those guys get more confident in what they’re doing.”
Center Elgton Jenkins said communication has aided that confidence. He said the unit went into the bye week focused on creating cohesion. The result was a new-found effectiveness. As each member of the line knew what the other four were doing on each play, the consistency of execution increased.
It took very little time for the offensive line to show it.
After forcing Kentucky to punt, MSU opened the scoring with a 12-play, 78-yard drive in which almost everything MSU tried worked. Passes of 17 and 7 yards were followed by runs that converted a third down and a fourth down. The offensive line celebrated a 3-yard touchdown run by Fitzgerald more than the junior quarterback.
As that drive unfolded, Fitzgerald felt good about what was to come.
“We could see we were moving those guys,” he said. “We weren’t having any trouble getting 2, 3, 4 yards a pop. I knew if we could keep that up for the rest of the game, we were going to be fine.”
MSU had a similar drive to start the third quarter. Fitzgerald completed the first five passes he threw to set up a 24-yard run that threw MSU into scoring position. Runs of 8, 6, 4, and 2 yards paved the way for a 10-yard touchdown pass that put MSU up 17.
MSU converted 12 of 18 third downs and kept possession for 34 minutes, 49 seconds. Mullen thought the advantage in time of possession allowed the offensive line to wear down Kentucky’s defense.
As well as Eiland has played, Mullen said Rankin could return next week for MSU’s game at Texas A&M. Adding a veteran to the mix could show everyone what Fitzgerald has seen as a reason for the unit’s improvement.
“The older guys are helping out the younger guys,” Fitzgerald said, “and the younger guys are naturally good.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson