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Previewing the Opponent Offense: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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Nick Fitzgerald. Lots of Nick Fitzgerald.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The Dan Mullen offense is still just as Dan Mullen-y as ever. Since the days of Tim Tebow, it’s always been based around a QB who can both pass and run the ball with equal veracity. Sure, many things have changed since those days, such as the decrease in jet sweeps and the increase in the new style of triple option, where the third option is a screen pass, rather than a trailing back. But all in all, it’s still centered around a QB that can do it all and a power run game that acts as constraint plays to the QB’s staples.

As such, we’ll start with QB Nick Fitzgerald. In his second year as a starter, Fitzgerald leads the team in both passing and rushing, with 162 yards per game passing and 89 ypg rushing. He’s accounted for nearly all of his team’s scoring, with 13 touchdowns through the air and 12 on the ground.

He’s a true dual threat, though in a little different vein than what we’ve seen from Jalen Hurts. He’s fast, but not overly so, doing his real damage on the ground with broken tackles and always managing to fall past the first down marker. He also doesn’t seem to actually scramble all that often. Most of his runs are designed plays, and he does a lot of read-options, speed options, POP passes, and even the age old tight-end shovel pass that Mullen loved so much at Florida.

As a passer, he’s got a lightning fast release and a cannon arm that add up to him really throwing darts in the short-to-intermediate passing game. He excels at throwing to slants and drags. On the other hand though, that all comes at the expense of some touch on deeper throws. He still tries to throw line drives to his receivers 30 yards down the field, so fades and bombs depend totally on perfect accuracy, rather than allowing receivers to make plays.

Outside of Fitzgerald, the State running game consists mostly of junior running back Aeris Williams picking his way up the middle for tough yardage. At 217 pounds, he’s big enough to be a power back, but still nimble enough to bust a run outside of the tackles and pick up some yards. He has 776 yards and 2 touchdowns on the year, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

He’s spelled occasionally by freshman Kylin Hill and sophomore Nick Gibson, who have 487 yards on 87 carries between the two of them, but all in all the show is run by Williams and Fitzgerald.

At receiver, senior Donald Gray leads the team in targets, if not yards, with 24 and 214, respectively. He’s Fizgerald’s most trusted target, despite his diminutive stature, and is a nightmare to tackle after the catch. He’s used more in the short passing game than down the field for that reason. However, he is dealing with a groin injury, so it’s unknown how active he will be in the upcoming game.

6’2” junior Jesse Jackson has 20 catches for 174 yards of his own to complement Gray as the other trusted receiver.

The 5’8” sophomore Keith Mixon is a wild card and a big play waiting to happen. With only 17 catches, he leads the team with 255 receiving yards, and also is a threat to carry the ball on a jet sweep at any given time. He’s spelled by 5’9” clone Deddrick Thomas, who has 165 yards on 13 catches for the year.

Tight end Jake Thomas is a 295 pound behemoth that doubles as an offensive lineman while also racking up 125 receiving yards and tying Donald Gray for most receiving touchdowns at 3. He’s a true match-up nightmare for any defense.

Along the offensive line, senior LT Martinas Rankin is an absolute force and many project to be a potential first round NFL draft pick. Center Elgton Jenkins was one of the top pass blockers in the SEC last year, and has only built on that campaign this year. The other three linemen are all in their first full year of starting, but have thus far played pretty well and they generally give Fitzgerald a lot of free time in the pocket.

This is definitely a run-first offense, both through the QB and RB, but incorporates enough passing, particularly under 10 yards, to keep a defense from keying in too much. It’s not some finesse spread team either, Aeris Williams and Nick Fitzgerald are both more than happy to ram the ball right up the defense’s throat, all while receiver Keith Mixon waits to make one missed assignment pay and take it to the house.