MSU's Fitzgerald downplaying revenge factor for Egg Bowl

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is carted off during last year's game against Ole Miss.

Staff Writer

Joe Moorhead was out getting a birthday gift when it happened.

Just a few days before Moorhead was hired as Mississippi State’s head coach, the Bulldogs – under then-head coach Dan Mullen – were battling Ole Miss in last year’s Egg Bowl when MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald had his ankle gruesomely broken early in the first quarter. Moorhead was purchasing an Apple Watch for his son at the time. When he returned home, his daughter told him what had happened down in Starkville.

It’s a year later now. The young man who was writhing in pain on the field last November is now Moorhead’s quarterback. On Thursday, as Moorhead gets his very first taste of the Egg Bowl, Fitzgerald will get his final shot at the Rebels.

Given what happened last year, one would think revenge would be at the forefront of Fitzgerald’s mind. If that’s the case though, Fitzgerald isn’t showing it.

“It’s an injury,” Fitzgerald said reflecting back on what happened to his ankle. “We play football. People get hurt every day. People get hurt walking down the street stepping off a curb. You hurt your ankle. It happens. It’s not something we have to hype up. It’s football. It’s violent. It is what it is.”

Whether Fitzgerald likes it or not, the storyline this Thanksgiving will at least in part revolve around his return from last year’s brutal injury. Now 12 months removed from it all, Fitzgerald has shown the pain of the night is a distant memory. He’s put together an outstanding senior season for the Bulldogs. He leads MSU in rushing yardage, and while he’s been inconsistent through the air this year, he’s been stellar in his last four games as he’s completed 51 of his 84 pass attempts for 736 yards and 10 touchdowns without throwing an interception.

It’s been a remarkable comeback from last Thanksgiving night to this coming one.

“Certainly, when your ankle is facing the direction where it’s not supposed to be, that takes a physical and mental toll on the person it happened to,” Moorhead said. “Between Nick and our training staff and everything they have done to fight back, battle through that and get him ready to play. certainly the things that he has been able to accomplish this year after that (type of injury) is credited to him and our training staff.”

While the return to form for Fitzgerald has been nice, it’s easy to think the comeback would be fully complete for him if he could lead the Bulldogs to a win over the Rebels this Thursday. Payback for the broken ankle would seem to be a good rallying cry for the evening.

However the Bulldogs insist that hasn’t been a focus in any way.

“It was just a freak accident,” MSU linebacker Erroll Thompson said of Fitzgerald’s injury. “It was bad for everybody.

“We don’t (talk about it) at all. Not at all.”

Though the Bulldogs might not discuss it, Fitzgerald’s ankle is still at least somewhat a thought going into Thursday. Counting Fitzgerald’s injury last year, the opposing starting quarterback against the Rebels has been injured in all three of Ole Miss’ wins over Power 5 teams since last year’s Egg Bowl. Texas Tech starter McLane Carter also sustained an ankle injury versus Ole Miss. Arkansas quarterback Ty Storey suffered a head injury against the Rebels.

Fitzgerald seemingly has noticed.

“For a long time, I don’t think (my ankle injury) has particularly been on purpose, but from what I’ve seen throughout this season, I’m probably going to go in there and probably have both my ankles spatted before the game just to make sure," Fitzgerald said.

Still, Fitzgerald insists Thursday night isn’t about the ankle. It’s about returning the Golden Egg Trophy to Starkville. Any other focus, he says, gets MSU off track.

“We know exactly what this rivalry has been,” Fitzgerald said. “We know how dirty things have gotten. We know how intense and vicious it is on the field and with fans, but it’s our job to let that go and focus on your job and one play at the time.

"If we get wrapped up in emotions and start playing football that way, that’s not characteristic of what we’ve done throughout this season. We’d put ourselves in a spot to play worse than we would have if we’d have just went out there and focused on the game.”

Moorhead is on the same page as Fitzgerald. Despite the challenges of battling emotions, Moorhead says Fitzgerald can’t afford to go into Oxford without blocking out many of those feelings.

There’s almost no getting away from the fact Fitzgerald will surely think about his injured ankle at some point Thursday night. However that, or nothing else, can overtake his mind if the Bulldogs are to be successful says Moorhead.

“For (Fitzgerald), you really can't afford to be too high or too low at the quarterback position,” Moorhead said. “There’s some other spots on the field where you can play with a little bit of emotion and harness it the right way. With the mental and physical challenges of playing (quarterback) and the preparation that goes into it on every snap, he can't be sky high and be worrying about things that aren't important. Certainly, he'll be fired up and want to play well, but of all the positions on the field, he really has to be focused on the task at hand.”