MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Nick Fitzgerald was the first one to ask Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead for this week’s scouting report, and he’ll probably be the first one to have his cleats on Saturday.
That’s what happens when you haven’t stepped on the field since last year’s Egg Bowl.
The Heisman Trophy candidate dislocated his right ankle against Ole Miss, forcing him to miss the Bulldogs’ bowl game. Then, Fitzgerald was suspended for this season’s opener against Stephen F. Austin for violating an unspecified team rule, relegating him to running the scout team.
“Very excited to get going with my season,” said Fitzgerald, who will be back under center when the No. 18 Bulldogs visit Kansas State for an important non-conference test.
“I mean, yeah, it was rough,” he said of missing the opener, “but I take full responsibility for the reasons why I was out. I embraced my role as a scout team quarterback while I was there. ... I just kind of embraced that leadership role.”
His understudy, Keytaon Thompson, performed admirably in his place, throwing for 364 yards and five touchdowns while running for 109 yards and two more scores. But there was never a doubt Fitzgerald, who was voted a team captain despite his suspension, would be back against the Wildcats.
“Everybody makes mistakes, but that’s part of the process,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said. “I think Fitzgerald has learned from the experience and will be better coming out.”
Speaking of being better, the Wildcats will need to be much better than they were last week, when they needed a fourth-quarter rally to beat South Dakota in their opener.
They turned the ball over four times. Committed 13 penalties. They dropped passes, made mistakes in the red zone and generally played counter to everything longtime Bill Snyder preaches each week.
Offensive lineman Dalton Risner summed up his coach’s predictable reaction: “You know you hear the saying, ‘I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed?’ Well, he’s mad and he’s disappointed.”
“I know it’s the first game and there’s so many excuses in the world,” Risner said, “but if there’s a coach that doesn’t care about the excuses, it’s Coach Snyder.”
The struggles extended to defense, too, where the Wildcats allowed the Coyotes to pile up 334 yards of total offense. That included 257 yards through the air, which should make Fitzgerald salivate.
“He does pose a threat, obviously,” Snyder said. “He’s going into a new offense, didn’t have spring practice behind him, but I think he’s bright and should be able to pick those things up very well. Who does he remind me of? I don’t know, just off the top of my head maybe a Collin Klein, a guy that pretty much had the same numbers. Maybe not quite as prolific, but nevertheless, they had similar numbers.”
Klein, of course, was the Wildcats’ own Heisman Trophy finalist, and now he’s tutoring quarterbacks Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson while helping to coordinate Kansas State’s offense.
LONG TIME COMING
The schools played twice more than four decades ago with Mississippi State winning 21-16 in 1974 and forfeiting a 24-21 win in 1977. The Wildcats are scheduled to make a return trip to Starkville next season in the second game of their two-game series.
RUNNING BACK WATCH
While most eyes will be on the quarterbacks, Mississippi State and Kansas State both have talented running backs. Aeris Williams topped 1,000 yards rushing last season, and splits time with Kylin Hill, a threat in the passing game. The Wildcats counter with bruising Alex Barnes, whose had 103 yards rushing against the Coyotes last week.
Moorhead went 38-13 over four seasons at Fordham before taking over as offensive coordinator at Penn State, but his visit to Manhattan will be his first road trip as a head coach at the FBS level. Snyder has 211 wins at Kansas State over two different tenures.
Mississippi State isn’t just an offensive juggernaut. The Bulldogs had a school-record 17 tackles for loss against Stephen F. Austin, including two sacks by Montez Sweat. The senior defensive end had an SEC-leading 10 1/2 sacks last season.
The Wildcats’ rally against South Dakota began with Isaiah Zuber’s 85-yard punt return touchdown, and special teams could play a big part in the outcome Saturday.
“We put a huge emphasis on specials teams and that’s what I loved about this program when I was getting recruited,” Kansas State freshman punter Andrew Hicks said. “We actually focused on special teams here.”