No. 22 Mississippi State playing to its strength: Running

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead knows that senior Nick Fitzgerald can “throw a ball over a mountain.”

And like most quarterbacks, Fitzgerald loves to show off that arm strength.

The problem is the 22nd-ranked Bulldogs (4-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) aren’t particularly good at connecting on his throws. Fitzgerald is completing just 49.6 percent of his passes for about 140 yards per game and he’s thrown nearly as many interceptions (three) as touchdown passes (four).

That means more often than not, Mississippi State has turned to running the ball. And it’s Fitzgerald — now fifth in the SEC with 513 yards rushing — who is often using his bruising 6-foot-5, 230-pound body to do that running.

“Whatever the team needs is what I’m going to do to win the game,” Fitzgerald said. “At the end of the day, one more ‘W’ in the win column is all that matters to me.”

The evolution of Mississippi State’s offense has been a hot topic since the season began. The Bulldogs were usually a run-first team under former coach Dan Mullen, but once Moorhead arrived during the offseason, one of his stated goals was expanding the passing game.

At least so far, it hasn’t worked out that way.

The Bulldogs struggled in back-to-back losses against Kentucky and Florida, scoring just 13 points with a balanced offense that was also quite bad.

“I’ve grown a lot in six games this year,” Moorhead said. “Learning about the players and what they can do. Obviously, them learning about us as well. Leadership requires that in times of adversity, you look in the mirror and not out the window. That’s the big thing you have to do.

“It’s not about what (coaches) know, it’s what players can execute.”

And Mississippi State can certainly run the ball. The Bulldogs bounced back with a 23-9 win over Auburn on Oct. 6 , running the ball 57 times and passing just 17 times. Fitzgerald had a career-high 28 carries and finished with 195 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

“An offense plays to its strengths,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of us thought there was going to be a lot more drop back and throw the ball and it hasn’t been like that. There are multiple different reasons. Running the ball works for us.”

Mississippi State is coming off its open week, giving it two weeks to prepare for Saturday’s game against No. 5 LSU in Baton Rouge. During that time, the Bulldogs continue to evaluate what they do well and there’s no question a heavy dose of ground-bound football is coming over the last half of the season.

Instead of throwing the football over a mountain, Fitzgerald might have to run through a few.

“There are always a few hits throughout the game that you really feel,” Fitzgerald said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve got to fight through it.”

Moorhead and Fitzgerald haven’t completely given up on throwing the football. Both coach and player know that at some point, a talented SEC defense might contain the running game and force the Bulldogs to pass.

The coach said Fitzgerald continues to develop, learning what’s expected when reading defenses, standing in the pocket with confidence and delivering accurate passes.

In the meantime, there’s little doubt the Bulldogs will lean on Fitzgerald’s legs as much as his arm.

“The fabric of each season is woven differently,” Moorhead said. “If it has to be more run, then it has to be more run.”

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