Two years ago when Mississippi State walked into Tiger Stadium and shocked LSU 34-29 on a Saturday night, most everyone but the visiting sideline was caught off guard.
The Bulldogs dominated almost every facet of the game from start to finish and won their first game in Death Valley in 23 years. That team had a giant chip on its shoulder and also had quarterback Dak Prescott calling the shots.
Now that Prescott is gone, Nick Fitzgerald has all but locked down the spot as MSU’s new starting quarterback as the Bulldogs (1-1, 1-0) head back to Baton Rouge to take on the No. 20 Tigers (1-1, 0-0) Saturday night in a game that will answer many questions for both teams.
MSU coach Dan Mullen decided last week to turn to Fitzgerald over junior Damian Williams and that backing pushed the sophomore.
Fitzgerald rushed for 195 yards — a school record for a quarterback — and completed 19 of 29 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns in MSU’s 27-14 win against South Carolina.
Williams completed 20 of 28 passes for 143 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 93 yards in MSU’s stunning 21-20 loss to South Alabama to open the season, though Fitzgerald was the starter.
“After the first game, I didn’t want him to worry about (the lack of reps),” Mullen said. “The plan through camp and even through Game One, I don’t think there was any pressure one way or the other. Going forward into the season, I didn’t want him to have to feel that.”
The pressure doesn’t fall solely on Fitzgerald. MSU’s chances of winning Saturday night will be decided in the battle between the offensive and defensive lines.
Left guard Devon Desper remembers their trip to Tiger Stadium two years ago in which the Bulldogs blew through LSU’s front on both sides. Though he can’t take a whole lot from that game into this year’s game, the philosophy of winning up front still remains.
“We don’t really look back at that because it’s a different defense they’re running now,” Desper said. “There were a lot of us here for that game a couple of years ago. (Justin) Senior started that game at right tackle and played the whole game. (The offensive line) dominated that game and we’re going to try to do the same thing this weekend.”
The Tigers are again loaded in talent across the board but there are still concerns about the offense. Junior quarterback Brandon Harris was benched midway through their 34-13 win against Jacksonville State and Purdue transfer Danny Etling came off the bench to pass for 100 yards and a touchdown with one interception.
LSU coach Les Miles slated Etling as the starter for Saturday and he has plenty of weapons with which to work. The biggest weapon returns in the form of All-American Leonard Fournette, the running back who sat out last week due to injury.
Fournette ran for 159 yards and three touchdowns to lead LSU over MSU 21-19 last year in Starkville.
With Fournette back Saturday and the talent at wide receiver on page with Etling, things could come together at any time for LSU. Mullen certainly doesn’t feel sorry for the Tigers’ offensive woes.
“They have dynamic play-making wide receivers, possibly the best running back in America, a bunch of veteran players on offense, a lot of play makers on the defensive side, dynamic secondary physical-athletic offensive linemen and linebackers, and a bunch of players that can really run,” Mullen said. “They don’t have a lot of weaknesses on their team. You look at the personnel, they have as many good players as any other team in America. This will be a great challenge for us and a tough environment for us to go out there and win.”
Mississippi State at LSU
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge
Radio: 1490-AM, 1640-AM, 870-AM, 105.3 FM