AUBURN, Ala. — After facing Deshaun Watson and Trevor Knight, Auburn’s defense might be as equipped as anyone to take on the Nick Fitzgerald-led Mississippi State offense.
The Tigers have gone against dual-threat quarterback challenges from Clemson and Texas A&M — and, to a lesser extent, Arkansas State and LSU. Fitzgerald, coming off a career performance vs. UMass, presents challenges of his own.
But Auburn’s defensive players said they feel prepared given the dual-threat experience they have fought the first five weeks.
“Once you play somebody like Deshaun Watson who is great with his feet and his arm, playing anybody else is kind of like you already know what to expect,” senior defensive back Josh Holsey said. “It’s like the same type of game plan for each one of them, just to keep them contained in the pocket and try to make them beat you with their arm and not their feet. It’s kind of the same thing.”
Last week, Fitzgerald had the strongest performance of his young career. He became the second quarterback in school history to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in the same contest (305 passing, 110 rushing), adding 3 touchdowns in the 47-35 victory.
Fitzgerald battled with freshman Damian Williams at the beginning of the season, but he’s asserted himself as the full-time starter.
“Offensively, it starts with their quarterback. He’s a true dual-threat guy,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He can really run. This last game, he had an excellent game. You can see he’s getting better.”
As a runner, Fitzgerald is eighth overall in the SEC with 82.3 rush yards per game. He sits behind only Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Arizona’s Brandon Dawkins in rushing yards per game for a quarterback.
Fitzgerald has shown an ability to air it out, as well. He’s completing 60 percent of his passes with a 5-to-1 TD-to-interception ration.
Ultimately, Malzahn expects Fitzgerald’s running threat to be the big key heading into Auburn’s first road game of the season. At 6-foot-5 and 223 pounds, the Mississippi State quarterback hosts a slightly different dual-threat capability than some of the Tigers’ previous opponents.
“The quarterback is a very good downhill runner,” Malzahn said. “Their quarterback run game is a big part of their offense and their guy is a big guy. He can really run, especially when he gets going downhill past the first level.”
Despite Auburn’s defensive familiarity with dual-threat quarterbacks, the Tigers have had mixed results against multipurpose signal-callers this season.
Auburn did an exemplary job of defending Watson’s running ability, holding him to 21 yards rushing and 248 passing — a solid showing against a Heisman frontrunner. Two weeks later, against Trevor Knight, the Tigers had a few more breakdowns but held their own.
Knight went for 247 yards passing and 42 yards rushing. But there were moments Knight broke loose on critical long-yardage downs that caused frustration.
Those experiences will only help, Holsey said.
“It helps already doing that at the beginning of the year instead of trying to wait until the end of the year, playing those mobile quarterbacks,” Holsey said. “We already know how to adjust to those type of things. It’s good, especially from playing Deshaun. Deshaun is probably one of the best you’ll ever get to play against with the feet and the great arm.”