Mississippi State first-year coach Joe Moorhead once had a goal to turn Nick Fitzgerald into more of a passer than a runner during his senior season.
Six games later, there’s been a shift in philosophy: Time to let the big man loose.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Fitzgerald ran for 195 yards and two touchdowns and Mississippi State’s defense had another dominant performance in a 23-9 victory over No. 8 Auburn on Saturday night. The victory snapped a two-game losing skid and re-established the Bulldogs as a force in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.
Moorhead said after spending the past week identifying what the team does well, it was time for Fitzgerald to shoulder the load. He had a career-high 28 carries.
“I took my coaching pills this week,” Moorhead said with a grin. “I forgot them the past two weeks.”
Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2) came into the game among the nation’s top 10 in scoring defense, and the Bulldogs were brilliant on that side of the ball once again. The Tigers hit on a couple big plays, but once they neared the end zone the Bulldogs clamped down.
Auburn (4-2, 1-2) settled for three field goals, which wasn’t nearly enough.
Mississippi State’s offense was a two-man show between Fitzgerald and Kylin Hill. Fitzgerald became the SEC’s career leader for rushing yards for a quarterback with a 39-yard run in the fourth quarter. He passed former Florida star Tim Tebow for the top spot.
“He’s a tough son of a gun,” Moorhead said. “You see him on a Sunday after a game and he’s been through the battles. It’s a testament to his leadership and a testament to his willingness to do what it takes for the team to be successful.”
Hill finished with 126 yards on 23 carries, including several crucial runs in the second half. The Bulldogs finished with 349 yards rushing.
“The offensive line did an amazing job once again,” Hill said. “Credit to all of them. We just found the open holes and ran the ball.”
The Tigers were a mess on offense and a couple big mistakes nullified two touchdowns.
The first was when Jarrett Stidham overthrew a wide-open Darius Slayton for a sure six points. The second was when JaTarvious Whitlow ran for 41 yards but fumbled just before crossing the goal line. Mississippi State recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
“When you have opportunities, you have to seize the moment,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We had our hands on a ball or two in the end zone and just didn’t make the plays. You’ve got to seize those moments.”
Stidham finished 19 of 38 passing for 214 yards. The Tigers managed just 304 total yards.
The Bulldogs have struggled on offense over the past two weeks, scoring a combined 13 points in losses to Kentucky and Florida. They couldn’t throw against the Tigers, but the Fitzgerald-Hill combo was enough to push them to the win.
“You make the right reads,” Fitzgerald said. “The offense is designed to put one player in conflict. You can take the running back or take me. My job is to make him wrong.”
After a tight first half, Mississippi State finally broke through for a touchdown when Fitzgerald barreled through Auburn’s defensive line on a 1-yard dive in the second quarter. It was the Bulldogs’ first touchdown in eight quarters — dating to the second quarter of the team’s 28-7 loss to Kentucky on Sept. 22 — and gave them a 13-3 lead heading into halftime.
Fitzgerald added a 21-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
Auburn’s offense never got going and it cost them an SEC victory. Stidham looked uncomfortable the entire night and big mistakes proved costly. The Tigers will likely take a plunge in the AP Top 25 on Sunday.
Mississippi State’s offense started slow, but the Bulldogs were good enough on the ground to grind out a win. The defense continues to be excellent. Now the Bulldogs get a week off before heading to LSU for an interesting game in Baton Rouge.
Auburn hosts Tennessee next Saturday.
Mississippi State is off next weekend and travels to play LSU on Oct. 20.