Sweet relief: MSU finds end zone, victory over Auburn

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald celebrates with fans after Saturday's 23-9 win over Auburn.

Staff Writer

Mississippi State waited with baited breath.

It was the final offensive play of the first half on Saturday night against No. 8 Auburn. On a fourth down play, just inches away from the goal line, Bulldog quarterback Nick Fitzgerald surged into the end zone. Or did he?
It was ruled a touchdown. The play, however, went under review. MSU hadn’t scored a touchdown in over eight straight quarters of play dating back to September 22 at Kentucky. Would this finally be the moment that streak ended?

It was. The call stood. Touchdown Bulldogs. In a stretch of offensive futility, there was sweet relief. It would get even sweeter as Mississippi State went on to defeat Auburn 23-9 and put life back into its season after deflating losses the last two weeks.

“There were some prosperous times for us over the season’s first three games and we were hit with adversity (against Kentucky and Florida),” MSU head coach Joe Moorhead said. “Tough times don’t test your character. They reveal it. I think our character as a team was revealed (Saturday).”

The Bulldogs bounced back with a vengeance.

Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2) still didn’t exactly look like an offensive juggernaut on Saturday the way the Bulldogs did when averaging 50 points a game and nearly 600 yards per contest over the season’s first three weeks, but MSU did move the football with success. The Bulldogs did so by somewhat getting back to their offensive roots of previous seasons.

When Moorhead was hired at Mississippi State before this season, he brought with him an offense that relies more heavily on explosive plays and passing plays down the field than the power-running, read-option style the Bulldogs utilized in recent years. Yet it was the running game that fueled Saturday night’s win.

Mississippi State racked up 349 total rushing yards in the game. Of MSU’s 74 total plays, 77 percent of them were runs (57 of 74).

Fitzgerald ran for 195 yards and two touchdowns. He surpassed Florida legend Tim Tebow as the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leader in career rushing yards by a quarterback. Kylin Hill totaled 126 yards. Aeris Williams had only 32 yards, but averaged 6.4 yards per carry.

It was quite the change from the previous two weeks against Kentucky and Florida when the Bulldogs totaled just 160 rushing yards over the entirety of those two games.

“Before the game, I looked at the offensive line and I told them, ‘If you win in the trenches, then we win,’” Fitzgerald said. “That’s exactly what they went out there and did. They went out there and dominated and opened up huge holes for the running backs and myself. I couldn’t have asked for them to do a better job than they did. Huge props to them.”

All the while, Mississippi State was outstanding defensively. For all of MSU’s offensive doldrums the last few weeks, the defense hasn’t been one of the problems. The group continued its good work against Auburn (4-2, 1-2).

The Bulldogs limited the Tigers to just three field goals. Auburn totaled only 304 yards of offense, just 90 rushing yards and MSU notched five total tackles for loss and three sacks.

“The defense has been playing really, really well,” Moorhead said. “You saw (Saturday) some more turnovers and them creating more three-and-outs and shortening the field up for the offense to give us an opportunity to not have to drive 80 or 90 yards.”

State’s defense came up big throughout the game, but never was there a more impactful moment than what happened near the end of the third quarter. MSU had built a 16-6 lead at the time on the back of Fitzgerald’s
first-half touchdown run and three Jace Christmann field goals. Auburn was looking to make it a one-score game. It looked like the Tigers would do just that when JaTarvious Whitlow broke loose on what looked to be a 42-yard touchdown run. However MSU safety Mark McLaurin and cornerback Maurice Smitherman chased down Whitlow and forced a fumble. Bulldog defensive lineman Kobe Jones recovered it in the end zone for a touchback.

“We just found a way to get (Whitlow) down and make a play for the team,” McLaurin said. “We knew that play could change the game and it did big time.”

Auburn did eventually make it a one-score game. Anders Carlson kicked his third field goal of the contest for the Tigers early in the fourth quarter to cut State’s lead to 16-9.

That score stood until with 2:02 remaining, Fitzgerald capped things off with a 21-yard touchdown scamper. To celebrate with victory pretty much assuredly in hand, Fitzgerald literally jumped for joy, leaping into the air excitedly as the cowbells rang out in the Starkville night. The frustrations of the previous two weeks were put to rest.

Where things go from here is anyone’s guess. For at least one night though the offensive struggles and worries that were there for MSU coming into the Auburn game were a distant memory.

“For some reason, we just weren’t clicking and it wasn’t working,” Fitzgerald said of the Kentucky and Florida games. “This week, we came together and said, ‘We’re going to get this right.’ We finally put it together.”