TAMPA, Fla. – They’ve dealt with Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez and toiled with Penn State’s Trace McSorley, but in Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl the Iowa football team is dealing with a different type of cat.
“He does a lot of the things we’ve seen already, but he’s bigger and he’s definitely more involved in the run game,’’ Iowa safety Amani Hooker said. “He’s a challenge for all of us, somebody we’re going to have to be aware of on every snap.’’
Unlike the dual-threat tests the Hawkeyes have faced on their way to an 8-4 record and an assignment against the 18th-rated Bulldogs in the New Year’s Day bowl, Fitzgerald is more than just a guy with the feet to make that work.
At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Fitzgerald frequently finds himself with the ball in his hands in short-yardage situations and he is more than willing to run between the tackles.
Of his carries for a first down, 21 have come on third-down plays.
“He’s not always looking to get to the edge like a lot of dual-threat guys,’’ Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson said. “He’s a complete running back in what he can do.’’
Fitzgerald has topped 100 rushing yards six times this season and is Mississippi State’s leading rusher.
He’s carried the ball a team-leading 201 times for 1,018 yards and 12 touchdowns, the second time in his three seasons as a starter for the Bulldogs that he has rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
The Richmond Hill, Georgia native has also thrown 15 touchdown passes while leading Mississippi State to an 8-4 record, completing 131-of-249 passes for 1,615 yards.
He has been intercepted seven times but has not thrown a pick in his last 102 attempts dating to the final minutes of a 19-3 loss to LSU on Oct. 20.
In the five games since, Fitzgerald has completed more than 60 percent of his passes.
Fitzgerald said his work in preparation for the bowl has centered on continuing to grow the connection he has with his receivers.
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“These 15 practices, I’ve been working on passing, pocket presence, feet in the pocket, keeping eyes up and delivering an accurate ball,’’ Fitzgerald said.
Preparing for his final collegiate game, Fitzgerald welcomes the opportunity to lead the Bulldogs into competition in a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time since 2013.
“It’s the best way to finish up, to be in a big bowl and play a big-time opponent,’’ Fitzgerald said. “It’s the kind of test that you would hope to have in the final game of the season. This is where you want to be.’’
Fitzgerald has gotten there by doing things his way.
He became the SEC’s all-time leader in rushing yards by a quarterback earlier this season with a 195-yard performance against Auburn, passing former Florida quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
Fitzgerald enters the Iowa game with 3,504 career rushing yards on his resume.
He blends a willingness to sacrifice his body and run for the tough yards with an offense that does spread the ball around despite being centered around the abilities of a quarterback who leads the SEC with four runs of 20 or more yards on third-down plays and is third in the conference in rushing at 92.6 yards per game.
“He makes good decisions with the ball,’’ Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert said. “He’s capable of busting long runs if you don’t do your job. We’re going to have to be aware of him on every snap because he’s very capable as he has shown a number of times.’’
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sees similarities between Fitzgerald and McSorley, and a few differences.
“Both appear to be great leaders, winners, and in the case of both of them, you better be aware of where they are on the field,’’ Ferentz said.
Fitzgerald expects dealing with the Hawkeye defense to be a challenge.
“They’re not going to beat themselves,’’ he said about an Iowa defense which ranks seventh in the country in total defense. “They are always going to be in position. You have to make tight throws and good catches if you want to move the ball on them.’’
He praised Iowa’s run defense, which ranks second in the Big Ten and seventh nationally in surrendering 102.8 yards per game.
“They have a big front seven and it will be tougher to run the ball on them, which is something I think we do well,’’ Fitzgerald said. “I think it’s going to be a good match-up and it will be tough to run the ball on them,’’ Fitzgerald said. “I like our game plan and I think it’s going to work out.’’