MSU's Fitzgerald prepares for one final bowl game

Nick Fitzgerald

Staff Writer

It takes Nick Fitzgerald two hands now to count the number of times he’s experienced bowl preparations with Mississippi State.

The senior quarterback of the Bulldogs arrived on campus in late 2013 and worked out a few times as they got ready for that year’s Liberty Bowl. He officially enrolled at Mississippi State the following month and has of course been with the program ever since.

He redshirted during the 2014 season when the Bulldogs got to the Orange Bowl. The following year as a redshirt freshman, Fitzgerald played in the Belk Bowl. It was the St. Petersburg Bowl for Fitzgerald in 2016, then the TaxSlayer Bowl in 2017 – even though Fitzgerald missed that game due to injury.

Now, it’s the Outback Bowl against Iowa coming up for MSU on New Year’s Day. Make no mistake, as Fitzgerald prepares for his finale, he’s still just as excited as he was when he was that wide-eyed youngster five years ago.

“It means a lot more that it’s your last one,” Fitzgerald said last week. “It means a lot more that you get to go to a great bowl game – a New Year’s Day bowl, and it’s warm. That’s always a huge positive too.”

The Outback Bowl is Fitzgerald’s opportunity to put an exclamation point on his Mississippi State career. By any account, no matter what happens in Tampa, Florida at the bowl game, it has been a successful tenure.

He’s set all kinds of records. Most notably perhaps is that he became the all-time leader in rushing yardage by a quarterback in Southeastern Conference history.

New Year’s Day in Tampa is also Fitzgerald’s chance to end his senior season on a high note. It has been a bit of a tale of two seasons for Fitzgerald this year.
In his first six games of the campaign, Fitzgerald completed only 69 of his 147 passes (47 percent). He threw seven interceptions over that stretch and only had four touchdown tosses.

He’s been a different guy ever since. Over Fitzgerald’s last five games, he completed 62 of his 102 passes (61 percent). He didn’t throw an interception in that stretch and and threw 11 touchdown passes.
So what clicked for Fitzgerald midseason? Even he’s not sure.

“Whatever it was, I’m definitely thankful for it,” Fitzgerald said.

At least part of the answer could likely be found in a couple of truths. First, Fitzgerald missed all of spring practice as he recovered from the gruesome ankle injury he suffered in last year’s regular season finale. So Fitzgerald didn’t get any time to master new head coach Joe Moorhead’s offense against live competition.

“I would just reflect on him not having a spring,” MSU offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said of Fitzgerald’s early-season struggles. “It’s just (missing the) experience (he needed to be) able to make those decisions at a fast pace. You know, a lot of our offense the quarterback has to make decisions in the run game and the pass game.

“So I think it’s just experience. That’s why you saw as the season went along a guy who was more comfortable in the system.”

Furthermore, Fitzgerald said mastering Moorhead’s offense proved to be a more difficult challenge than he, and others, envisioned. After years of running former head coach Dan Mullen’s style, Moorhead’s changes proved to be quite the adjustment.

“I think even people on the team didn’t exactly expect how different the offenses were going to be, me included,” Fitzgerald admitted. “I thought there were a lot of similarities, but in the end, there really just wasn’t. It’s just kind of a total different philosophy about the game. That’s great. It’s great to change, but it was harder than I think people expected it to be and I think that showed early on.”

By the end of the year though, Fitzgerald and the MSU offense seemed to be clicking on most, if not all, cylinders. The Bulldogs, behind their longtime signal caller, will try to keep that up against Iowa next week.

“(Iowa has an) extremely sound defense and they’re not going to beat themselves,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re obviously a top-10 defense in the country in most categories. Hats off to them. They had a great season and they keep people low scoring. It’s our job to go find the weaknesses they have and try to exploit them.”

If the game comes down to experience, MSU has a decisive advantage. Few, if any, players on the field in the Outback Bowl will have had the time put into the game of college football than Fitzgerald.

With this season, and his career, down to this one game, it’s nearly time to find out if the old dog has one last trick in him.

“I definitely don’t think anyone on the team as a player has more experience in a bowl,” Fitzgerald said. “I think I’m the oldest person on this team, coaches included honestly. It’s been a while.”