MSU Armchair QB: Trench War Edition

Nov 5, 2016; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) celebrates with teammates after a touchdown in the third quarter against the Texas A&M Aggies at Davis Wade Stadium. Mississippi State won 35-28. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 5, 2016; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) celebrates with teammates after a touchdown in the third quarter against the Texas A&M Aggies at Davis Wade Stadium. Mississippi State won 35-28. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports /

What a massive win. MSU upset #4 Texas A&M on Saturday and in the process sent shockwaves through the college football world.

And most importantly, the win was no fluke. The Bulldogs just flat whipped the Aggies, emerging with a hard fought 35-28 victory. Here’s how we did it:


1. The MSU defense was magnificent on Saturday. aTm entered the game averaging nearly 500 yards of total offense per game, 498.8 to be exact. State held them under 400 total yards with 382.

The Aggies averaged 249.13 yards rushing coming into the game. The Dawgs held them to just 117 yards on 32 attempts and 3.7 YPC. The only other team to hold them under 200 rushing this year was Alabama. A&M threw for 265, slightly more than their average of 249.6 entering Saturday.

State forced A&M into being one dimensional, and it payed off big. The Aggies were just 4/15 on 3rd down Saturday. That’s a conversion rate of just 26.6%. A&M averaged 39.34% on 3rd down entering the game.

2. A&M hit a few big plays passing, but I honestly don’t feel bad about it. That’s what the Aggies offense is under HC Kevin Sumlin and what they do. When you have Trevor Knight, Christian Kirk, Speedy Noil, and Josh Reynolds, you hit big plays. For the most part, our secondary was in position and played the ball well. Considering what we had seen from them prior to Saturday, I think you have to be thrilled with how well they held up on the back end.

3. Defensive line absolutely dominated aTm. From the opening possession, they blew up the Aggie’s OL and harassed the aTm QBs. They ate up blockers and freed our LBs to go make plays.

4. LBs were all over the place. Finally able to run free with the DL occupying blockers, they were able to just go make plays. 5 of our 7 leading tacklers were LBs. Just a great day from this unit.

5. Loved seeing some in-game adjustments from DC Peter Sirmon. After loafing aGAIN and being part of giving up a TD run to Knight, Brandon Bryant was benched for the day. State went with Mark McLaurin and Kivon Coman the rest of the way and it made a huge difference.

6. Speaking of McLaurin, he was outstanding. He got burned badly by Kirk late, but Kirk on a safety is always a mismatch. He’s one of the fastest, if not the fastest, players in the league. But Mac showed his nose for ball and made several big plays. The two biggest were a 3rd down sack to force a FG attempt that aTm missed and the INT to seal it. Mac nearly had a pick-6 early, but couldn’t quite make the catch.

Overall, Mac finished with 3 total tackles, 1 sack/TFL, 1 INT, and 1 PBU. It’s a crime he wasn’t a locked in starter all season. You can’t teach what he has. The kid is going to be a great one for us the next couple of seasons.

7. Jeffery Simmons was a man today. He didn’t light up the stat sheet with just 4 total tackles, all assisted, and 1 PBU. But Simmons was nearly unblockable all day. He was beating defenders and chasing the QB all day. I have no idea how he didn’t get at least one sack or TFL.

On one play I saw him drive his man to his right/OL’s left, then plant his foot and swim move right past the guy into the QBs face. QB had to get rid of it for an incompletion. He’s showing why he was one of the most highly recruited players in the country. His blend of size, speed, and power is freakish.

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8. Richie Brown had a big day. He led the team with 8 total tackles, 5 solo, with 1 TFL. But he finally looked like the Richie Brown we’ve seen the last 3 years, showing up in the right place at the right time to make a key play. We desperately need him to keep it going.

9. Leo Lewis continues to shine, too. He tied for 3rd on the team with 4 total tackles, but 3 of his were solo. He’s going to be a big time LB before he finishes if he keeps progressing.

10. Johnathan Calvin had a nice game. His tackle numbers won’t blow you away with just 2 total, both solo. But one of them was a sack. He also had an important strip of aTm QB Jake Hubenak that was recovered by Braxton Hoyett. He brought pressure all day.

Special Teams:

1. Special Teams continued to be a major issue. Missed FG, punt return TD, and a shanked punt were all big problems that could have cost the Dawgs.

2. Westin Graves was perfect on his PAT attempts Saturday but missed his lone FG attempt. The worst part is that it was a relative chipshot from just 32 yards. Kicking from the left hash, he hooked it wide left. At this point, it’s beyond debate that Graves is done. He’s missed 4 of his last 5 FGs. We’re better off just going for in on 4th down than letting him kick. Either hold some open tryouts and get someone else or pretend like we don’t have a kicker – because we don’t.

3. Logan Cooke was having a good day of punting on Saturday, prior to suffering an injury. He had 4 punts for 88 yards, averaged 44 YPP, and had a long of 56. Unfortunately, the 56 yard punt out-kicked the coverage and contributed to Christian Kirk’s 93-yard TD return. (Yes, there was a block in the back that should have nullified it.) Hopefully it’s nothing serious for Logan, but he’s been dealing with a kicking leg injury all season.

4. Big props to Kody Schexnayder. He had to see his first action of the year due to Cooke’s injury and handled it will, all things consider. Despite one shank, he still had 4 punts for 164 yards and averaged 41 YPP. He had one pinned inside the 20, a touchback, and bombed one 50+. Can’t say enough about how big he  played.

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1. The Bulldog offense was superb on Saturday. The Dawgs rolled up 574 yards of total offense. State had 365 yards rushing and 209 yards passing. State ran 89 offensive plays, gained 29 first downs and had the ball 37:13.

One of the most telling stats was 3rd down conversions. State converted 11 of 18 3rd downs, a 61.1% success rate. The Dawgs moved the sticks and strung together methodical drives that wore down the Aggies and killed clock.

2. We FINALLY committed to #RTDF (Run The “Darn” Football). Of those 89 snaps, State ran it 58 times. That’s running it 65% of the time. And we all saw the results of that commitment. The Dawgs bludgeoned the Aggie D and averaged 6.3 YPR. Most importantly, it ran clock and helped shorten the game against what is probably the SEC’s most explosive offense.

3. Allow me to brag on the MSU OL. I’ve ripped them mercilessly this season for their softness and poor play. On Saturday, they were absolutely dominant. They punched aTm in the mouth from the first snap and never stopped. It was an impressively physical display we haven’t seen from a State OL in nearly two years.

There were a couple of mental mistakes in terms of penalties that need to be fixed. But overall, this was the best performance we’ve seen in a while. The big fellas didn’t do anything fancy, they just lined up and knocked aTm off the ball.

4. MSU QB Nick Fitzgerald was outstanding. The passing numbers won’t blow anyone way, as he went 18/31 for 209 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs. He hit a long pass of 60 that went for a TD. His completion percentage was 58%. Ideally you’d like to see that number at 60% or more, but 58% is pretty close and a number you can live with.

Where Fitz did his real damage was in the running game. He carried the ball 20 times for 182 yards and 2 TDs. He averaged 9.1 YPC. The first MSU play from scrimmage was a read option that Fitz read perfectly, kept, and scampered 74 yards for a TD. The tone was set for the rest of the day. His handling of the read option game was magical. He absolutely fooled me a few times when he kept the ball.

One area where Fitz needs to improve is ball security in the red zone. Both of his picks came in the endzone, costing the Dawgs points. He absolutely must stop being so careless with the ball when we’re in scoring position.

That said, Fitz became just the third SEC QB to have a 200 yard passing, 175 yard rushing day. The other two are Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton. Fitz is proving that he is clearly the successor to Dak at QB. He’s young and still has plenty of room for improvement, but he’s getting better every week. Anyone saying Fitz isn’t the answer at QB doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.

5. The RB contest should be over now. Aeris Williams became the first MSU RB since Josh Robinson to rush for 100 yards. We fed him the ball and he responded big. Aeris ended the day with 140 yards on 24 carries, averaged 5.8 YPR, and had 1 TD.

The 24 carries were crucially important. Aeris finally had enough carries to get into the flow of the game. He showed what we’ve all seen: The size and power to run between the tackles effectively. He ran hard all day and was consistently falling forward for an extra yard or two. By the end of the game, Aeris had worn down the Aggie D and turned early 2-3 yard runs into gains of 5-7 yards. A&M got sick of tackling him.

He also deserves some serious credit for the success of the option game. Fitz mad some great reads and decisions on whether to give or keep, but Aeris ran hard when he didn’t have it an really sold the give.

6. Fred Ross set the school record for consecutive games with a catch. Ross finished with 6 catches for 98 yards and 2 TDs. He now has 19 TDs for his career and is just 6 away from breaking the record of 24, held by Chad Bumphis. In other words, he needs to average just 2 TDs per game the next 3 weeks to set the record. 4 TDs the next three weeks would put him in sole possession of second place ahead of Bear Wilson.

7. Donald Gray is a bad dude. Not only is he a big play threat, he’s our best blocking WR. He loves to block and it shows. The guy is physical and it’s a crucial part of our run game. We can’t break those long rushing plays without downfield blocking by the WRs. Gray also had 2 catches for 32 yards against aTm.

8. Farrod Green didn’t record a catch, but his impact blocking can’t be overlooked. On Fitz’s long run for the first TD, Green was the lead blocker. He threw a devastating block in the open field to seal the lane and spring Fitz. You throw a block that nice in the open field, you get praised by Dakota Knight.

9. Keith Mixon continues his breakout season. He was second on the team in receptions and yards to Ross, with 5 for 54. He had a long play of 22. Mixon also added 3 carries for 14 yards.


Nov 5, 2016; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen celebrates with fans after the game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Davis Wade Stadium. Mississippi State won 35-28. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 5, 2016; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen celebrates with fans after the game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Davis Wade Stadium. Mississippi State won 35-28. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports /

1. MSU HC Dan Mullen had a great game plan offensively. We committed to the run with Aeris & Fitz and everything else stemmed from that decision.

My only real complaints are not giving the ball to Aeris on either of the first two possessions in the 2nd half and getting cute in the red zone late. We were running the ball right down the Aggies’ throat for what looked to be a sure TD. But Mullen couldn’t help himself and asked Fitz to throw it instead of keeping the ball on the ground. Fitz would throw his second INT in the endzone. #RTDF, don’t ask your young QB to throw it.

Other than that, it was a great day from Mullen. He had the team ready and motivated. And I loved Mullen’s reaction to the missed block in the back call that led to the aTm punt return TD. He let the refs have it, and he needed to do it. Players respond to those sorts of things.

2. Likewise, Sirmon had a great day defensively. As I pointed out, we gave up a couple of big plays, but you know that’s going to happen against aTm. The key is not letting them have 5 or 6 of them, which we didn’t. I loved the aggressiveness on  aTm’s final possession. We didn’t sit back in prevent and let them march down the field. Sirmon turned the dogs loose and got after the QB. It makes a difference when your boss gets out of the way and allows you do your job.

3. As well as the OL played, I still believe we need to root out the #CountryClub, beginning with John Hevesy. The guy confirmed what I’ve said: He’s a solid coach, but he’s got no one to blame but himself for the lack of talent he has to work with up front.

4. I’m giving the fans a B+ for the game. Those of you who showed up were loud and engaged. You did a good job respecting the bell. It made a big difference in the game and you could see the players feeding off the environment. But way too many didn’t participate in the blackout. I saw way too many people wearing maroon or white shirts. I know it was an 11 AM day game, but the weather was absolutely perfect. Stop being whiny and participate. If we want the coaches and players to be all in, we have to be all in as well.

5. Loved the black uniforms. I’m normally not a big alternate uniform person, but the military appreciation jerseys were awesome. And while I prefer shiny maroon helmets 99.9% of the time, the silver helmets with them were great.

6. We finally started to see some leadership emerge from the players. Best of all, and perhaps predictably, it was from some of the underclassmen not the seniors. We really need to see that continue to have even a small chance the next 3 weeks.

Next: Dan Mullen's top 10 wins at Mississippi State

Final Thoughts:

Saturday was arguably the biggest win of the Dan Mullen Era and certainly the biggest upset. It was one of the biggest upsets in school history, actually. I stayed in the stadium a while after the game just soaking it all in. This was a much needed win for everyone – players, coaches, and fans. It was good to see Mullen engaged and focused again. Good to see him smiling and laughing. Best of all, it was good to hear him say that he let his coordinators have more responsibility this week, including calling the game. It made a big, big difference. We’re sitting at 4-5 with 3 games left. Get recharged, it’s going to take everyone when Arkansas rolls into Starkville in two weeks.

Hail State!