OXFORD — These Egg Bowls often leave us with lasting images, whether it be a field goal blown upward and backward, a raucous victory parade around the field with the Golden Egg Trophy or, occasionally, a good, old-fashioned brawl.
The lasting image of Saturday’s 55-20 Mississippi State victory: Tall, sturdy and fast Nick Fitzgerald, wearing jersey No. 7 in all white, running around and through red-jerseyed, arm-tackling Rebels time after time after time after time. And then again.
It was almost as if we were watching replays, only these were different plays with the same result. Fitzgerald running left. Fitzgerald running right. Fitzgerald running up the middle. Fitzgerald breaking into the open. Often, Fitzgerald would pause, wait for a crease in the Ole Miss line and then shoot through it and keep on running. The first Rebel to hit him rarely stopped him. And he was often 10 to 15 yards down the field before someone touched him.
Fitzgerald ran for a school record 258 yards on 14 carries. That’s 18.4 yards per carry. The game program told us Fitzgerald, from Richmond Hill, Ga., stands 6 feet, 5 inches and weighs 230 pounds. But as an announced crowd of 66,038 and those watching on TV saw, a bunch of 185-pounders couldn’t catch him.
“He’s fast,” Dan Mullen said. “You saw that. I mean, he’s really fast.”
That’s true, but journalistic integrity demands this addendum: Ole Miss couldn’t tackle anyone this day. Aeris Williams ran 25 times for 191 yards. State ran for 457 yards and nearly 10 yards per carry as a team.
The Rebels couldn’t get off blocks, and, when they did, they couldn’t tackle. Veteran defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, a good man who has been a highly successful defensive coach, announced his retirement from coaching before the game, and it was almost as if his players retired with him. The Rebels missed far more tackles than they made.
Said Hugh Freeze, “We were not good and when you can’t stop their base stuff, it’s … (pause) We’ve got to figure out is it the process or is it people. What is it?”
Freeze promised “an exhaustive study” of his staff and the system. Some linebackers would help.
It was almost as if you half expected somebody needed to put out an all points bulletin: Missing, Ole Miss linebackers.
Matter of fact, there wasn’t a whole lot of crisp tackling, period. State gained 566 yards, Ole Miss 528. That’s 1,094 yards of total offense and that’s a lot, even in this uber-offense era of college football.
Shea Patterson, Ole Miss’s prized quarterback recruit who could have played college football anywhere he wanted, threw for 320 yards and ran for another 74. But the story of the game was the other quarterback, the one who was recruited by Mississippi State and Middle Tennessee State and not a single other Division I FBS team.
Dan Mullen was asked whom he had to beat to successfully recruit Fitzgerald.
Mullen responded, eyes wide open: “U.T.-Chattanooga!” and stuck his unlit victory cigar in his mouth for emphasis. “They’re an excellent football team.”
There’s a story there. Fitzgerald played wide receiver as a junior in high school, moved to quarterback only as a senior and then ran the Wishbone offense. Little wonder he was lightly recruited.
And then, as a sophomore, he has been tasked with replacing the most beloved player in Mississippi State history, Dak Prescott. That can’t have been easy.
“Dak Prescott was Mississippi State football,” Fitzgerald said. “No matter who replaced him, everything you did was going to be compared to him. I don’t think that will ever end, honestly.”
Perhaps not. But even Dak never ran for 258 yards and two touchdowns against Ole Miss, much less threw for an additional three touchdowns in a single Egg Bowl.
Nick Fitzgerald did, and that has to be the lasting memory from this Egg Bowl.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at email@example.com.