The answer is obvious. It was a 35-28 loss on the road to Mississippi State. In the days leading up to the game, A&M premiered at No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff standings. Conversely, the Bulldogs had lost three straight games to FBS teams, although they were coming off a 56-41 victory over Samford.
On Mississippi State’s first play from scrimmage, under-appreciated quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, the guy who had taken over when Dak Prescott left for the Dallas Cowboys, gutted the Aggies’ defense for an 82-yard touchdown run.
Talk about setting an upset tone.
Fitzgerald tugged on his jersey as he called the play, his eyes darting back and forth as he surveyed the A&M defense. He faked a handoff on a zone read and darted left. By the time he arrived in the end zone, no Aggies defender was within 10 yards.
On Saturday night, A&M, coming off a bye week, will play host to Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs at Kyle Field. Both teams are 5-2.
Fitzgerald’s first touchdown — his entire performance, in fact — should be on a constant video loop during the Aggies’ defensive meetings.
“Obviously the first play was big,” Fitzgerald said this week at his team’s media availability. “We had a great start to the game. From there, we just controlled the line of scrimmage and successfully moved the ball up and down the field. We would have had more points if I’d protected the ball in the red zone. I’m going to have to do that this year. It’s going to be a hostile environment with a lot of people who are really loud. It’s going to be crazy.”
Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder, humbled the A&M defense in so many ways. He rushed for 182 yards and two scores. He threw for 209 yards and two scores. His two interceptions kept the game from being one-sided, but the threat of him running also opened seams for the tailbacks — the Bulldogs generated 365 yards rushing.
This season, the A&M defense is faring better against the run. The Aggies are allowing 135.2 rushing yards per game, which is nearly 60 yards better than a year ago.
There really aren’t a bevy of running quarterbacks in the SEC. A&M kept Alabama’s Jalen Hurts from running at will against them. Hurts ran 14 times for 56 yards, which is about 15 below his season average.
Fitzgerald, statistically, is the best running threat among SEC quarterbacks. He’s 10th in the league in rushing at 80 yards per game. That’s behind nine tailbacks.
“All these guys are different,” said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, when asked about the various running quarterbacks in the SEC. “This guy is 6-5, he’s a completely different player.”
Fitzgerald was the toast of the league late last month when he helped lead the Bulldogs to a 37-7 victory over LSU, but then his team lost badly to Georgia (31-3) and Auburn (49-10). He’s coming off of consecutive 100-yard rushing games in wins over BYU and Kentucky.
Fitzgerald is running roughly three fewer times a game than he did last year, but his production is similar. A year ago, he averaged seven yards per carry. This season it’s 6.9.
Mississippi State’s entire offense is predicated on the run. The Bulldogs average 264.5 yards per game, which is third best in the league behind Alabama and Georgia.
It’s Fitzgerald who opens up everything, even if he doesn’t even run. Defenses have to focus on him. Don’t pay attention to him and it’s a long run. Do account for him and there’s the possibility of a long pass play over the head of the safety. He’s rarely sacked. The Bulldogs have allowed only three sacks all season.
So it’s basic 11-on-11 math. A&M’s defense is the best in the SEC at rushing the quarterback. Something will give Saturday night.
“It’s always scheme, and for us, it’s what gives us an advantage,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. “If we see things that the defense is going to give us, we try to utilize it. We also try to utilize our players to get the right guys at the right spots to go make plays.