For the second straight week the game plan for No. 1 Alabama’s defense is centered around one thing — stopping No. 7.
In last week’s 10-0 win against LSU, the Crimson Tide stuffed Tigers running back Leonard Fournette, holding the highly-touted back to 35 yards on 17 carries. This week, Alabama will have a completely different No. 7 to worry about, as Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald looks to lead the Bulldogs into Bryant-Denny Stadium fresh off a 391-yard performance during last week’s upset of Texas A&M.
Fitzgerald torched the Aggies last week, completing 18 of 31 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions while adding 182 yards and two more scores on the ground. This season, the sophomore has been the main source of the Bulldogs’ offense, accounting for 2,544 of Mississippi State’s 4,015 total yards.
Through nine games this season, Fitzgerald has completed 56.3 percent of his passes for 1,705 yards and 16 touchdowns with nine interceptions while rushing for a team-high 839 yards and eight touchdowns on 135 carries.
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“When you’re playing a team that the quarterback can run the ball, it’s almost like the old wildcat where you had a running back at quarterback except the running back can throw,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said Monday of stopping Mississippi State’s offense. “Well, this guy can throw.”
That’s almost exactly what LSU interim head coach Ed Orgeron said Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts before heading into last week’s game against the Tide. If Alabama needs an example of how deadly Fitzgerald can be, all it needs to do is look at its own offense.
Like Fitzgerald, Hurts brings a dual-threat ability to his game. Through nine games, the true freshman has gained a total of 2,320 yards of offense, using both his arm and his feet to move the ball. Hurts has completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 1,685 yards and 12 touchdowns with six interceptions while adding 635 yards and 10 more scores on 115 carries.
Alabama players say keeping up with Hurts during practice has helped them prepare for running quarterbacks this season.
“Jalen, he’s really fast. You’ll think you’ve got him but he just gets around you real quick,” Alabama defensive tackle D’Ron Payne said earlier this season. “Coach Saban really gets on us about containing him.”
With Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly and Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight both injured for the season. Saturday’s matchup between Fitzgerald and Hurts features the two highest active players in the SEC in terms of total yards.
When asked to compare Fitzgerald and Hurts Thursday during the SEC teleconference, Saban said he sees some similarities in and differences in both quarterbacks but stated both teams have their own styles in how they use them.
“We’re focused on trying to get our quarterback to be a little more complete in what he needs to do to be an all-around good quarterback,” Saban said. “We’re certainly trying to make progress with a young player and he’s responding in a positive way, so we’re going to continue to work on that.”
Saban credited Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen’s ability to mold running quarterbacks throughout the years. Mullen developed Mississippi State’s all-time passing leader Dak Prescott and was also the offensive coordinator at Florida when Tim Tebow was the quarterback.
Alabama has had mixed success with running quarterbacks this season. The Tide allowed Kelly to pass for 421 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 43 yards and another score in a 48-43 win against Ole Miss. However, Alabama was able to limit Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs to 92 yards passing and -31 yards on the ground. The Tide then held Knight to 164 passing yards and 24 yards on the ground.
This week, Tide defenders know they will be in for another battle with Fitzpatrick behind center.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison said. “He’s a good runner, I think he’s one of the top rushers in the SEC, so he’s great on his feet, and he’s a great passer, and he runs the offense very well. We’re just going to have to do a good job trying to contain him this week.”
Tony Tsoukalas writes for the Anniston Star, You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mississippi State at Alabama
- When: Noon, Saturday
- TV: ESPN, noon
- Radio: WIOL-FM 95.7, 9 a.m.