MANHATTAN, Kan. — Nick Fitzgerald’s impact on his first game back as Mississippi State’s starting quarterback was profound — even if it wasn’t in the way quarterbacks are designed to do it.
Fitzgerald’s 19 carries for 159 yards offset what he admitted was not a great day throwing the ball. He still threw for 154 yards and two touchdowns, despite completing 40.7 percent of his passes, in No. 18 MSU’s 31-10 win over Kansas State (1-1).
Fitzgerald’s first play was a success, a five-yard completion to tight end Justin Johnson; all momentum was gone after his next five attempts fell incomplete. Gashing the Wildcat defense up the middle with his feet proved to be the medicine he needed.
“I found the flow of it, running the ball-wise. I didn’t have a great day passing it, I’m going to continue to work on that, work with (quarterbacks coach Andrew) Breiner and (head coach Joe) Moorhead and get the accuracy going,” Fitzgerald said. “I think after the first scramble, the first hit, I got back into it. I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous than I was.
“It felt great to go out there and reap the rewards of all the hard work with your teammates all offseason, since this past January. It was amazing to go out there and play like that.”
As those coaches look back on it, they expect to find a game of near misses.
“At the beginning of the game, I think he was a little amped up, had a few throws that were errant: had an overthrow to Osirus (Mitchell), had Austin (Williams) early in the end zone, which was the same play he completed later in the game,” Moorhead said.
“He made some very good throws, he did some good things by improvisation, but we certainly have to work to continue our explosiveness while increasing our efficiency and completion percentage.”
Going into the game, Fitzgerald knew this would be his challenge. He saw in Kansas State (1-1) a fundamentally sound defense, one that is always where they are supposed to be and one that forces, “your 11 to play better than their 11.” He knew pinpoint accuracy was required; luckily, he spent an offseason tweaking a throwing motion to deliver just that.
He said he felt all the work on that new throwing motion translated to his first game with it; now he goes to the week ahead to find what is missing.
“When I watch the film I’ll know more, but I felt like I was throwing it well, just not putting it where it needs to be,” Fitzgerald said.
“The ball was spinning well, that kind of thing. I’ll watch the film and learn from it.”
A sticking point
One line on the box score that suggests a final score far different from the one that actually materialized was penalties: MSU committed 11 for 84 yards compared to two for 15 yards from Kansas State. The Wildcats went well into the third quarter without a single penalty.
One was more costly than most: safety Johnathan Abram being ejected for targeting in the second half, meaning he will be ineligible for the first half of next week’s game against UL Lafeyette.
“Obviously I think we need to be a little better at penalties,” Moorhead said. “Certainly the targeting for Johnathan, that hurts for this game and the next. We had an offsides that took us off of third-and-1 and a delay of game that took points off the board with the field goal. They don’t get you until they get you. In a game when you’re up, they kind of get glossed over, but it’s the same as last week: you can’t accept in victory what you won’t accept in defeat.”
Moorhead did not have an update on cornerback Jamal Peters, who left the game with an upper body injury in the second half and did not return. Moorhead said Peters was being evaluated during his postgame press conference and he had no further details. Peters’ starting counterpart, Cameron Dantzler, also got injured during the game but returned before the end.
Updating the record book
Fitzgerald’s 159 rushing yards gave him 2,645 for his career, which surpassed Dak Prescott to make him the program’s all-time leader in quarterback rushing yards and second in the Southeastern Conference behind Tim Tebow.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett –Hudson