Mississippi State

No. 16 Mississippi St gets its shot at top-ranked Alabama

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) will need to play his best game against defending SEC champion Alabama on Saturday in Starkville.
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) will need to play his best game against defending SEC champion Alabama on Saturday in Starkville. Associated Press

A year is like an eternity in the life of sports.

Take Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team for instance. After one of the biggest blowouts in NCAA Tournament history against UConn in the 2016 Sweet 16, the Bulldogs met the Huskies in the Final Four and ended their record 111-game winning streak.

The football team faces similar odds Saturday as No. 16 MSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC) hosts No. 2 Alabama (9-0, 6-0 SEC) at Davis Wade Stadium under the lights at 6 p.m. A year ago, the Bulldogs went to Tuscaloosa an were obliterated 51-3. It was the most lopsided loss to the Crimson Tide since the 1930’s and the ninth-straight in the series between the two teams.

MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was held to 15 yards on the ground in a miserable afternoon. Fitzgerald learned a lot from his first season as a starter and his first experience against Alabama.

“The difference in a year is huge. I have a lot more experience and playing in games. I have a lot more passing experience. Overall, I just have a lot more knowledge about football,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m confident in my teammates around me, that we’re going to go out there and make plays.”

Fitzgerald is already challenging and breaking SEC records as a running quarterback. He just moved up to fourth all-time in SEC history for rushing yards by a QB last week with 2,303. He’s only behind Tim Tebow, Matt Jones and Dak Prescott. Tebow and Prescott were coached by Dan Mullen.

Mullen admits Fitzgerald might be the best pure running quarterback he’s ever coached. With a chance to go over 1,000 yards for the second-straight year, his numbers speak for themselves. Mullen credits the offensive line and running backs for elevating his game to the next level along with improved decision making.

“There’s a lot of other people around that help that out. The offensive line, Aeris Williams, all of those things allow him to do it,” Mullen said. “We have less quarterback runs with him than any other quarterback we’ve had. It’s more option based. It’s really the other facets that allow him to go do that, and he just makes good decisions.”

While Fitzgerald has improved, MSU’s defense also made a bigger jump. The hiring of Todd Grantham put the Bulldogs among defenses nationally. They head into the Alabama game top 10 nationally in total defense and passing defense. They were 110th and 120th nationally a year ago.

“It’s obviously a fast, physical, aggressive defense that gets after you on every single snap,” Mullen said. “We’ve played very good defense. We’ve given up too many big plays. Overall, besides that, the identity of our defense is playing fast, physical, aggressive-style defense.”

Fitzgerald, the offense and defense will have to be at their very best against the Crimson Tide. Alabama has won 35 of their last 36 games and they have another playoff trip on their minds as the season winds down.

“We get to play them every year. We know them well,” Mullen said. “They’ve got explosive players all over the field. They’ve got one of the top defenses, if not the best defense, in the country coming at you with a lot of depth. They’re obviously a very talented team that knows how to win, so it’ll be a huge challenge.”

Game plan

Who: Alabama at Mississippi State

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN

Radio: 1580 AM, 96.9 FM

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