Depleted Alabama defense faces strong test in dual-threat quarterback Nick FitzgeraldBy Ben Stansell | 11/09/2017 11:32am
Nick Fitzgerald has 1459 yards passing and 801 yards rushing this season. Photo by Noah Siano of The Reflector
A battle will be waged this Saturday between Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and Alabama’s rushing defense.
Standing 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Fitzgerald possesses a blend of breakaway speed and bruising power that is not typical of a player at his position – which is precisely why Fitzgerald is flourishing under Head Coach Dan Mullen.
During his tenure at both Florida and Mississippi State, Mullen has become renowned for his ability to develop physically gifted quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott into potent offensive weapons, and he has done so again with Fitzgerald.
"Nick Fitzgerald is one of those actual dual-threat quarterbacks,” Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “He has shown a lot of times he can get outside the pocket and be able to extend plays.”
It is no secret that Fitzgerald’s running ability is the engine that drives Mississippi State’s offense. So far this season, Fitzgerald has amassed 2,260 total yards and 25 total touchdowns. A bona fide dual-threat, Fitzgerald has generated 801 of those yards and 12 of those touchdowns by gashing defenses with his legs.
After two difficult games against Georgia and Auburn, in which he was kept under 60 yards rushing, Fitzgerald has picked up steam in recent weeks, posting over 100 yards rushing in each of his last four contests, all of which were Bulldog victories.
However, Mississippi State’s star field general is now on a collision course with Alabama’s second-in-the-nation rushing defense, and the Crimson Tide are well aware of the threat he poses.
“He's a very good athlete, a very good competitor, he's physical,” Alabama linebacker Keith Holcombe said. “So I mean we have to get ready, we have to all be tied in on all our plays, like I said earlier, communication is going to be huge this week. Fitzgerald is a very good quarterback."
Alabama’s defense is not unfamiliar with Fitzgerald, having confined him to a mere 15 yards rushing on 11 carries during a 51-3 trouncing of Mississippi State last season. While the Crimson Tide graduated several key defensive players from that unit, they have remained one of the top defenses against the rush again this year, allowing only 75.8 rush yards to opponents on average each game.
Unfortunately for Alabama, the team will be missing multiple linebackers that have so far this season been critical to the Crimson Tide’s ability to smother the run. A senior leader and signal caller on defense, Shaun Dion Hamilton will be out for the remainder of the season after breaking his knee cap against LSU.
Facing a Bulldog offense that relies heavily on run-pass options that are designed to confuse defenders, Hamilton’s high football IQ will be missed.
"They have a lot of quarterback runs, so basically you're playing against wildcat at every snap,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “But because it's a quarterback and he has a great ability to throw, that's something you have to take into consideration and make sure you can defend their passing game as well. Then when they do pass, his ability to scramble and run also creates problems for the defense.”
The Crimson Tide will also be without emerging sophomore linebacker Mack Wilson, who broke his foot against LSU.
Despite sporting a depleted linebacker corps, Alabama’s defense can have success containing Fitzgerald by impeding his ability to run and forcing him to throw the ball often.
While Fitzgerald has proven an effective passer at times, he has also proven that he is prone to throwing interceptions. Fitzgerald has thrown 10 interceptions this season and has thrown multiple interceptions in four games, two of which were Mississippi State losses.
Earlier this week, Fitzgerald was announced as one of 16 semifinalists for the Davey O’Brien award, which is given to the nation’s top quarterback each year. If Alabama’s defense has its way, it will put an end to Fitzgerald’s run at the O’Brien trophy with a shutdown performance against him in Davis-Wade Stadium on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a challenge for our defense and I feel like we will be ready for it,” Evans said.