Sports

Mississippi State, Auburn jockey for position in SEC Western Division

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) must play well for the Bulldogs to have a shot at upsetting Auburn Saturday night.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) must play well for the Bulldogs to have a shot at upsetting Auburn Saturday night. Associated Press

Reality set in for No. 24 Mississippi State a few minutes into the Georgia game last weekend in Athens, Ga.

Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm handed the ball off to Nick Chubb who tossed it back to Fromm for a wide open flea flicker score to start the game off with a bang. From there, it was all downhill for MSU, losing 31-3.

That 37-7 beatdown of LSU quickly faded away and there were no cowbells clanging in support to lift the team. It was an all-too-familiar feeling MSU has in these types of games for a long time.

Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and his teammates weren’t greeted with the same love they were shown after a 3-0 start. Fitzgerald and his teammates tried to avoid social media postgame. Their focus this week: redemption against No. 13 Auburn on Saturday.

“Outside of this facility, it doesn’t really matter,” Fitzgerald said. “In terms of a loss, it was a big loss. It was embarrassing. We kind of got our butts kicked in every facet of the game. We come into the locker room after that and have to have a really short memory.”

It will be hard to forget the 31-3 blowout as Auburn carries a lot of the same similarities as Georgia. Auburn (3-1, 1-0 SEC) boasts the nation’s seventh best scoring defense and fourth nationally in total defense.

What’s worse for MSU: the Tigers are back at full strength offensively. Highly-touted Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham is coming into his own with over 70 percent of his passes completed. Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway will share carries for the first time since the MSU game last season.

“What Gus Malzahn is going to do is utilize his personnel,” Mullen said. “By having the power of the backs, you can incorporate the quarterbacks. You have to defend the quarterback run. They’re going to do a good job formationally, trying to get a formational numbers advantage. They put some pretty good backs on the field with different styles.”

Considering the Tigers are as stellar on defense and now the offense looks as strong, the Bulldogs have to play their best game. The best chance for MSU offensively: open up and make plays down field in the passing game. Fitzgerald completed 14 passes against Georgia for just 83 yards and threw two interceptions. Often, MSU was outmanned downfield with 5-foot-10 wide out Donald Gray.

“You’ve got to be able to call the shots down the field and hit them,” Mullen said. “You’ve got to wins some 50-50 balls down the field every once in a while. That’ll all help it.”

MSU hoped to have help from taller receivers on the outside this season, but it hasn’t come. Six-foot-four wide outs Jamal Couch and Reggie Todd have caught four total passes this season.

“They’re coming along. Reggie’s a redshirt freshman and Jamal is a true sophomore who both played limited last year,” Mullen said. “I see improvement in them from one week to the next. Their attention to detail is improving, and they’re learning how to play the possession better.”

Big plays have to come from someone for MSU to get the upset on the Plains.

Mississippi State at Auburn

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn

Radio: 1580-AM, 96.9 FM

TV: ESPN

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