Blocked kicks save the Bulldogs’ day

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Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald eludes Miami (Ohio) defensive back Tony Reid on a 44-yard touchdown run during the second half of the St. Petersburg Bowl Monday

This Mississippi State season began with the Bulldogs lining up for a potentially game-winning chip-shot field goal against South Alabama. The kick missed and State lost a bitterly disappointing 21-20 decision.

This Mississippi State season ended with the Miami Redhawks lining up for a potentially game-winning field goal in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Nelson Adams broke through the middle of the line, got a hand on the ball and saved the day for the Bulldogs. State won 17-16.

Just goes to show, you die by the sword, you live by the sword. Or something like that.

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

Mississippi State football did a lot of living and dying this season. So did Bulldog fans. The Dogs played six games decided by 7 or fewer points. They won two of the six. So the final 6-7 record easily could have been better.

But, as we saw on the day after Christmas, it also could have been worse. The Bulldogs, out-gained 433-335 by the Mid-American Conference Redhawks, survived because of two blocked kicks, the final field goal and an extra point.

And they also survived because of the excellent play of sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who gives State much to look forward to in the future.

Chosen the game’s MVP – as well he should have been – Fitzgerald ran for for 142 yards and both State touchdowns and threw for 136 more. And even those numbers don’t tell how well he played. He completed 13 of 26 throws but more than half of those incompletions were really good throws that were dropped. In other words, his numbers could have been spectacular.

When so many of his early passes kept bouncing off receivers’ hands, Fitzgerald showed the leadership Dan Mullen has been preaching to him all season long. Afterward, Fitzgerald said he told his teammates: “Just keep playing the game, stay focused, we’ll be OK.”

In the end, they were. By the hardest.

And a word here about Miami’s fine quarterback, Gus Ragland. He was simply terrific, completing 22 of 30 throws for 263 yards, often into tight coverage. He also ran 17 times for 51 yards. State played eight games against Southeastern Conference teams this season, but they did not play many, if any, quarterbacks much more effective than Ragland, who deserved a better fate.

In the game’s waning moments, Ragland moved the Redhawks into position for Nick Dowd’s 37-yard field goal attempt from the middle of the field. As had been the case on the earlier blocked extra point, State got significant penetration in the center of the line. Adams got his hand on what appeared to be a low kick and State celebrated with equal parts joy and relief.

Surely, defeat would have put a significant damper on State’s 55-20 Egg Bowl victory over Ole Miss to end the season. Winning extends the momentum into the off-season, one in which Mullen believes Fitzgerald will continue to make strides.

Just as he was after the Egg Bowl, Mullen was measured in his praise for Fitzgerald.

“He’s got a lot of work to do this off-season,” Mullen said of Fitzgerald in his post-game TV interview. “He’s really improved a lot … this is where you make the huge jump. He has to grow as a passer and grow as a leader.

“He has that potential. We’re going to make sure he works to get it out of him.”

Developing quarterbacks has been Mullen’s strong suit – from Utah and Alex Smith, to Florida and Tim Tebow, to State and Dak Prescott.

Mullen is dead-on when he says that Fitzgerald is far from a finished product. The flipside: The potential is there for him to be as good as all those others.

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.