BATON ROUGE, La. — One year ago, the LSU defense shut down an overmatched Nick Fitzgerald. Now, it’s time to do it again.
Arguably the premier dual-threat quarterback in the SEC, Fitzgerald looked helpless against LSU in 2016, completing 12 of 24 pass attempts for 120 yards and rushing 13 times for 13 yards. The domination on the part of the LSU defense led to Fitzgerald getting benched, and to LSU winning 23-20.
But that was a different Fitzgerald, a player earning significant reps for the second time in his career in his first SEC road game pitted against the hostile crowd of Tiger Stadium. This was before Fitzgerald developed into the SEC’s second-leading rusher for 2016 with 1,375 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns in the first two games of 2017, 5 through the air and 3 on the ground.
With Fitzgerald, the stats don’t lie. When he’s on, he’ll be as dominant as the LSU defense was against him last year. LSU coach Ed Orgeron describes Fitzgerald as a matchup nightmare.
“They do a tremendous job of reading the box,” Orgeron said. “And they’re going to take — just like what our guys do — they’re going to take what they give you. So if you put too many people in the box, he can throw that football. And they’ve got darned good receivers. He can make the reads on the zone read that he needs to and keep the ball and scramble out of the pocket. He’s a good decision maker. He’s a good runner. He can scramble. And he can throw the deep ball. He’s a complete quarterback, in my mind.”
That said, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has a track record at stopping dual-threat quarterbacks.
Most notably, Aranda schemed out a defense that stopped Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in LSU’s victory in the Citrus Bowl, holding Jackson without a touchdown for the only game and to a season-low in rushing yards.
Duplicating that is LSU’s task this week.
“It’s kind of the same,” LSU cornerback Donte Jackson said. “It’s just one of them you can’t let get gaps. If you give Lamar Jackson a gap, he’s going to take it the distance. Fitzgerald, he’s going to chisel at that short distance, those 5, 6 yard plays. First downs. Moving up the field slowly but surely. So he’s a guy we have to apply our defensive skills. Everybody’s got to play their gaps and get ready for him to try to run him down.”
Of course, Jackson and Fitzgerald are different kinds of quarterbacks. Whereas Jackson led the nation with 65 carries of 10 or more yards and 13 carries of 30 or more yards in 2016, Fitzgerald has a reputation of chunking his yardage in smaller doses, just as Tim Tebow did in Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen’s offense a decade ago.
That reputation is a bit erroneous though. Fitzgerald was 1 of 2 Power 5 players who had 3 rushes of 70 yards or more in 2016, alongside Florida State All-America running back Dalvin Cook.
LSU linebacker Devin White doesn’t see virtue in preparing for Fitzgerald the same way he prepared for Jackson. At this point, White wants to listen to Aranda’s plan and trust it’ll work the same way it did last season.
“Those are two different players,” White said. “They’ve both got their own unique style. I mean, they both run so they both add an extra threat. Coach Aranda is going to dial something up to keep him in the pocket. We’ve just got to do what he wants us to do. Hopefully, we can do that just like we did in the Citrus Bowl.”