By JOEL COLEMAN
For two years, Nick Fitzgerald sat behind heralded former Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott as Prescott led the Bulldogs to big win after big win. Now MSU’s starting signal caller, Fitzgerald can add a huge victory to his own resume.
Fitzgerald passed for 209 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 182 yards and two scores to lead Mississippi State to a shocking, 35-28 upset win over No. 4 Texas A&M on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. The win sent a shot of life back into Mississippi State’s previously disappointing season and continued to solidify Fitzgerald as the successor to Prescott’s throne as the leader of the Mississippi State offense.
“As the season is going, I’ve gotten more experience as a starter and I’m feeling more and more comfortable,” Fitzgerald said. “Me and my teammates are learning from each other every day, like knowing exact tendencies and things like that.”
Fitzgerald’s last two performances have been perhaps his best two yet. On Oct. 29 against Samford, Fitzgerald became just the third quarterback in the history of the Southeastern Conference to pass for more than 400 yards and rush for more than 100 in the same game, joining SEC legends Archie Manning and Johnny Manziel. Then, for an encore, Fitzgerald led State to an earth-shattering win over Texas A&M on Saturday.
“He’s been up and down throwing the football as a young guy and he’s getting better,” Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said of Fitzgerald. “He’s got a live arm, he’s a big guy and a really good athlete. He was highly accurate (Saturday). He threw some balls into really tight coverage with some slants and things like that. He was the best player on the field (Saturday).”
It hasn’t all been so simple for Fitzgerald in his first season as a starter. He is forever in Prescott’s shadow. Every time a picture of Prescott flashes on the Davis Wade Stadium videoboard, the cheers are deafening.
Prescott was beloved by fans and teammates alike. Fitzgerald said he’s had to figure out his own style and not try to be a spitting image of Prescott.
“It’s hard replacing someone like Dak,” Fitzgerald said. “With all he did and all the attributes that he had, he’s obviously a great leader. I knew, myself, I wasn’t that kind of guy, so I was going to be how I am and just make it work for myself and flex when I need to flex to kind of be like him in certain ways. A lot, I learned from him as a leader. He instilled a lot in me and I use that, but still I don’t get out of my own personality.”
Slowly, Fitzgerald is coming into his own. Mistakes are still happening, sure. On Saturday, Fitzgerald threw two passes that were intercepted in the end zone. MSU head coach Dan Mullen says things like that are all part of Fitzgerald’s growing process.
“I think one of the things he’s really starting to do is that when he makes a mistake, instead of getting frustrated or bothered or annoyed, he goes, ‘I understand the mistake that I made and I’m going to look for that and try not to make that mistake again’,” Mullen said.
Fitzgerald’s teammates are noticing his progression. Wide receiver Fred Ross caught six of Fitzgerald’s passes on Saturday for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Ross can see Fitzgerald’s growth and thinks more is just ahead.
“Each and every week, he’s going to get better,” Ross said. “Every week, I look for him to improve and he’s done that.”
Fitzgerald isn’t Prescott yet. Perhaps he’ll never be. It’s unfair to expect him to replace the most beloved figure in MSU history, particularly just one year after that player departed and started reminding people of his greatness as starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.
For now, Nick Fitzgerald is just Nick Fitzgerald, and especially after Saturday, it seems like that’s plenty good enough.
“Obviously every person is different and every leader is going to lead in a different way,” Fitzgerald said. “(Prescott) was very outspoken and very hard-driven. People just kind of swarmed to him and wanted to follow him. That just wasn’t exactly what I had going for me so I just had to, leadership-wise, play as best I could and just hope that my play would get people to fall behind me and lift me up and work hard for me. It happened and we’ve jelled as a team really well and we’re looking good going forward.”