Call it déjà vu. Call it a blowout. Call it anything you want. But whatever you say about then-unranked Mississippi State dominating then-No. 11 LSU in Starkville on Saturday night, don’t call it an upset. At least not to the Bulldogs’ faces.
“Honestly, anyone inside that football facility this entire week, they would have never told you it would be called an upset,” star junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said after the 37-7 win in Davis Wade Stadium. “We knew that we were going to be able to come out there and play with them. We knew we would win if we played our game. We had no doubt in our mind that we were going to win this game.”
And sure, some might call it coachspeak or even hubris to make such a statement once a team has already secured the win, but Fitzgerald was just telling the truth. He knew it, his teammates knew it and his coaches really knew it: there was no reason for the Bulldogs not to think they’d still be undefeated by the end of the night Saturday.
“We knew we were going to win,” junior running back Aeris Williams confirmed. “All we had to do was execute to the best of our ability, and that’s what we did.”
Fitzgerald and Williams, together totaling over 400 yards and four touchdowns as they passed and ran their way through LSU’s defense all night, are where the proof backing up their claim begins. State’s offense was evidence not just of the talent Dan Mullen’s team has, but of the superb coaching job he did ahead of time. MSU was ready for the Tigers all night, always at least one step ahead, if not several. Like a grandmaster chess player, Mullen had his pieces in position from start to finish, attacking and devastating the opposition with every move.
For example: as MSU moved up and down the field, they also moved side-to-side, and as they did so, they knew where they could exploit LSU’s defense. As Fitzgerald explained after the game, they knew that whatever hashmark they were closest to, the open field side was where the Tigers were weak. Constantly, MSU rolled that direction on designed runs, quarterback rollouts and run-pass options all night.
“We knew they were going to be weak to the field,” Fitzgerald said. “We knew we could attack that part of the field for them. We always had two people in front of me blocking. Had great blocks. Make sure people on the perimeter are blocking, too. Really, all I do is run.”
Those constant runs – to the field side, to the boundary, up the middle – helped set up what was probably the biggest play of the game, and certainly the best example of just how prepared and how well-coached the Bulldogs were. It’s a play MSU has used before, and like any good checkmate, it requires a lengthy setup. But, when done right like it was Saturday to bust open the game and turn a 13-point scoring margin into a 27-7 lead, it can be the kill shot.
After all those runs, all those handoffs to Williams and all those scurries down the field by Fitzgerald, LSU clearly expected more of the same as the third quarter of the game was winding down. It was third-and-one, after all – a clear running situation. On the LSU 45-yard line, with the quarterback under center, surely the Bulldogs were going to trust their big, bruising rushers to get the single yard required to keep the drive alive.
So when Fitzgerald turned around after the snap and held the ball out for Williams to take, the defense collapsed on the area. They had stacked the box before the play even started, so when they saw what they expected, they bit on the bait. But Fitzgerald had tucked the ball to his side. Williams never actually took it, fooling even the cameraman zoomed in on the action.
And while the Tiger defenders were so intent on getting past all the blockers, 5’9” slot receiver Keith Mixon had darted past the scrum and was streaking down the field, wide open. As Fitzgerald turned back around and was about to be hit, he tossed a perfect pass to Mixon, who ran all 45 yards to the endzone without a single obstacle in his path. Touchdown, Bulldogs.
So, a reporter asked Fitzgerald after the game, was that a setup?
“Yes, sir,” the quarterback responded. “No doubt.”
And a credit to his coach, Fitzgerald was actually uncertain about the play call before the snap, but trusting his coach turned out to be exactly the right move.
“Honestly, I thought they weren’t going to give us the right defense for it,” he admitted. “Happily, they did, and they just walked up everybody up on the line in the box to try and stop it, and [Mixon] just slipped right by them.”
It was that coaching, that playcalling and that execution that led MSU to its biggest victory over a ranked opponent since World War II. MSU’s rushing attack paved the way for the offensive fireworks, and key passing decisions on big plays kept both the drives and the momentum going for the Bulldogs.
Perhaps the most impressive statistic for Fitzgerald wasn’t his rushing yards or his completion percentage, but his success passing on third downs. The junior was 5-of-8 on third down passes, earning a first down on all five completions. In fact, every single one of MSU’s four touchdown drives included a third-down pass completion to keep the chains moving, including the 45-yard touchdown pass.
“His management on third down I thought was huge for us tonight. A couple big ones,” Mullen said. “It was that management of putting us in the right situations I thought was huge.”
Fitzgerald explained his coach’s guidance: “He said, third downs, take what they give you. You don’t have to throw it past the sticks to get a first down. You can throw it underneath and run for it. That’s what happened tonight.”
And all of that without mentioning a defense that held LSU to a single touchdown, its only points of the game. A defense that held one of the country’s best running backs to only 76 yards, that held a starting quarterback to under 50% on his completion rate, that held an entire offense to 270 yards and that held the Tigers to an abysmal 3-of-13 third down conversion rate.
“We had a really good game plan coming in. We knew where to attack them. We knew where they were weak. We knew what we had to do,” Fitzgerald said. “From the first snap, we just knew if we played how we were supposed to play, we’d be fine.”
And to be clear, MSU’s players say, this wasn’t a one-time thing.
“I know that we can handle anybody,” Williams said.