For the fifth time on Saturday, Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams both rushed for over 100 yards in the same game. And considering the juniors just became starters last season, with Williams only becoming the “starting” running back near the end of the 2016 season, the quarterback-running back tandem is even more impressive. With the two talented runners, MSU has one of the most effective backfields in the country. However, it’s not just that they’re both good. It’s that they’re different.
In Dan Mullen’s time as a college football coach, his offenses have featured some of the greatest rushing duos college football has seen the last decade. Just at MSU, he had the combination of Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson in 2014, preceded a few years earlier by the seemingly unstoppable duo of Chris Relf and Vick Ballard. Back in his days at Florida, opposing defenses were rendered borderline useless by the combined talents of Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin.
Mullen’s spread offense, for all its great quarterbacks, has always been at its most effective when the rushing game is strong, and the rushing game has been at its strongest when the running back and the quarterback pose a threat in the run attack. Fitzgerald and Williams have yet to reach the levels of some of those who came before, but at the rate they’re going – with a year and a half left together if both return for their senior seasons – they may very well go down as one of the most prolific pairs the SEC has seen.
What’s working so well for them is what’s worked well for Mullen before: they bring different skillsets to the same objective.
“I think it’s a good balance between the two,” Mullen said after his team beat BYU 35-10 on Saturday afternoon. “Fitz gives you a little bit of – for a big guy he still gives you that threat outside. He makes you nervous because he has some home run ability. And then Aeris is going to be physical between the tackles, so I think that’s a good combination to have.”
Against what had previously been a stingy Cougar defense only giving up 3.7 yards per carry and 167 rushing yards per game, the Bulldogs racked up over 300 yards on the ground, averaging 6.5 yards every time someone ran the ball. Fitzgerald went off for 103 yards and two touchdowns on only 15 rushes, while Williams managed to top his quarterback colleague by rushing for 114 yards and a score on 23 carries.
That MSU won by so much on a day when its rushers ran for so much is no coincidence. The Bulldogs are averaging right around 300 rushing yards per game in their four wins in 2017, while they’re down below 200 in their two losses. Fitzgerald knows as well as anyone on his team that when he and Williams are effective, MSU is tough to beat.
“When we’re running the ball, when we’re playing how we’re supposed to play, when our guys on the line are opening up holes, it’s really hard to stop us, I think,” Fitzgerald said.
The Junior quarterback shared the same sentiment as his head coach, saying that their individual talents and abilities complement each other well. Certainly, Fitzgerald is a big-bodied quarterback who is capable and regularly successful in runs up the middle, and Williams has shown an aptitude for moving in space and catching passes on the perimeter. But the knowledge that Williams is almost always good for five or six yards up the middle, paired with the fact that Fitzgerald has more rushing touchdowns of over 40 yards than most quarterbacks have running scores of any variety, makes it hard for defenses to put all of their resources in one place.
“That’s kind of our job,” Fitzgerald said. “We can’t make it easy on them. They have to respect the outside and the perimeter, and they have to respect the middle. I think, as an offense, we’re pretty balanced. We can attack anywhere we want to.”
Williams confirmed that he, too, has seen the effects of defenses that can’t decide who to pursue. He knows that every time MSU snaps the ball, somewhere in the mind of every defender is the worry that Fitzgerald will take off running, whether it’s by design, by play-action or just because he saw an opening he didn’t expect.
Fitzgerald has already set a record for 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback at MSU, garnering his 10th such outing on Saturday and breaking Prescott’s record of nine. And since being inserted into the starting lineup, Williams has been one of the SEC’s most effective running backs. So long as both are on campus, things won’t get any easier for those who have the misfortune of trying to defend the Bulldogs.
“[Williams] is a very powerful,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a strong back. He’s gonna pound it up inside. He’s gonna get you yards. He’s gonna fall forward. If you pack it too tight, we can take it on the perimeter, or if you had bad eyes, I can pull and get around edge. It just depends on us being consistent and running the ball and moving people out of the way to make it work.”