Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
No. 16 Mississippi State at Arkansas:
Ready to eat again: Bulldogs’ QBs have feasted on Hogs
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) celebrates his three-yard touchdown run against LSU during the first half of their NCAA college football game against in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
FAYETTEVILLE -- Recent history says the Arkansas Razorbacks will struggle to slow down No. 16 Mississippi State's quarterback Nick Fitzgerald on Saturday.
Quarterbacks in the Dan Mullen offense at Mississippi State have racked up huge numbers on the Razorbacks the past three seasons.
In Arkansas' 58-42 win last year, Fitzgerald rushed for 131 yards and 4 touchdowns, and passed for 328 yards and 2 more touchdowns, accounting for 459 yards and six scores.
Fitzgerald and Dak Prescott combined for 1,167 passing yards and 8 touchdowns as well as 238 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns in the past three games against Arkansas. That's 1,405 yards and 14 touchdowns and an average of 468 yards and 4.7 touchdowns per game against the Hogs.
Prescott won 17-10 at Starkville, Miss., when the Bulldogs were No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings in 2014, and 51-50 in 2015 when Mississippi State blocked Cole Hedlund's 29-yard field goal with 39 seconds left.
Prescott passed for 505 yards and 5 touchdowns and accounted for 554 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2015 to offset Brandon Allen's 406 passing yards and a school-record 7 touchdown passes.
Fitzgerald enters Reynolds Razorback Stadium for Saturday's 11 a.m. game with a hefty load of credentials. The 6-5, 230-pound junior has rushed for 867 yards and 13 touchdowns and passed for 1,617 yards and another 13 scores.
He and Louisville's Lamar Jackson are the only FBS quarterbacks with 800 yards rushing and 1,600 yards passing this season.
"The one part that probably jumps out to me on Fitzgerald versus when we played them a year ago is just the preparation leading into the game," Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said. "He has so much of a better understanding of everything going on around him.
"He's been very, very much improved not just in running the offense but the simple tools of it. The run game ... they're a little bit more diversified. The throw game, he looks to be very confident. His pre-snap reads are well executed and he's throwing the ball where he wants to go."
Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads described Fitzgerald as a great football player whose passing has gotten more accurate since last season.
"He's fast," Rhoads said. "I think people don't give him enough credit for that. They know he's big, they know he's physical, they know he churns it out. But he is fast in the process, too."
The Razorbacks should know. Fitzgerald had scoring runs of 58, 18, 2 and 1 yards against Arkansas last season, sometimes with defenders draped on his back or clinging to his waist.
"He's a tough guy to get on the ground," Arkansas inside linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves said.
"It's very difficult to play against a running quarterback, and Fitzgerald is something like 6-6, 230," Arkansas linebacker De'Jon Harris said. "We need all 11 to get to the ball to tackle him. You can stand him up at the 2-yard line and his body weight is going to make him fall forward for a touchdown."
Fitzgerald averages 6.7 yards per carry in his career, the highest among active Power 5 quarterbacks and a Mississippi State record. He ranks second in the FBS in total offense with 248.4 yards per game.
"Everybody knows their quarterback makes them go, and he's a talented guy," Arkansas defensive back Kevin Richardson said. "He's got a strong arm and can run the ball."
With Fitzgerald and tailback Aeris Williams, an 873-yard rusher with four touchdowns, leading the way, the Mississippi State offense has not lost a fumble this season. The team's only lost fumble came in the kicking game.
Alabama survived an upset bid by the Bulldogs to win 31-24 last Saturday. Fitzgerald accounted for 205 yards and a touchdown but threw two interceptions.
"I think he's got a great grasp of their offense," Alabama Coach Nick Saban said. "He's a big guy that's really hard to tackle."
Saban also said a comparison of Fitzgerald to former Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones is apt.
"I know Matt was a great player and I don't like to compare players. But at least in style, there's some similarities," he said.
Fitzgerald rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown and passed for 141 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 35-14 victory at Texas A&M on Oct. 28.
"For a guy that's 6-5 and that big, I don't think I've ever seen him caught from behind," Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin said. "He's got explosive speed, wire-to-wire speed to go along with his size.
"You see him now making decisions that he didn't make last year where he's checking things. He's playing at a really high level right now."
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, whose team lost 45-7 to the Bulldogs on Oct. 21 behind 270 total yards and 3 touchdowns by Fitzgerald, said the quarterback's physical assets stood out.
"That's Mississippi State as a team," Stoops said. "They're very physical on both sides of the ball.
"Coach Mullen's schemes have always started with being physical, and I think Nick fits that mode just perfectly. He's able to run for tough yards, but also throw the ball."
Carving the Hogs
Mississippi State quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald have had big games against Arkansas the past three seasons:
2016;Nick Fitzgerald;23-33-0;328;2;17-131;4;L, 58-42
2015;Dak Prescott;38-50-1;508;5;15-46;2;W, 51-50
2014;Dak Prescott;18-27-2;331;1;13-61;0;W, 17-10
CORRECTION: This story previously stated Arkansas lost its 2016 game at Mississippi State.
Sports on 11/17/2017
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