One hit: MSU loses Fitzgerald to injury, then the Egg to Ole Miss

MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is carted off the field after dislocating his ankle during Thursday's game against Ole Miss

One hit.
That’s all it took on Thursday night for the cowbell clanging at Davis Wade Stadium to turn into deafening silence instead.

It was early in the first quarter. Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was tackled by a pair of Ole Miss defenders. Usually, the ever-so-tough Fitzgerald pops up from even the hardest of licks. This time he stayed down with his right ankle obviously severely injured.

Fitzgerald was carted off the field and, in the process, yelled for his teammates to bounce back without him. They never completely did and the No. 16 Bulldogs found themselves on the wrong end of a shocking upset as MSU fell to instate rival Ole Miss 31-28 in the Battle for the Golden Egg.

“It was rough,” Mississippi State offensive lineman Martinas Rankin said in reference to trying to overcome the loss of Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald’s injury was just the biggest part of a Thanksgiving night that went terribly wrong for Mississippi State on multiple fronts. The Bulldogs were also hindered by five critical turnovers – one pick each thrown by Fitzgerald and backup Keytaon Thompson, as well as three lost fumbles. Four of the five turnovers came with the Bulldogs threatening on the Rebels’ side of the field.

“We turned it over too much,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “You’re not going to win many games when you turn the ball over five times as a team.”

The Bulldogs also were unable to contain Rebel wide receiver A.J. Brown. The former Starkville High star returned to his hometown and silenced it as he caught six passes for 167 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown reception.

“We just didn’t make the plays (against Brown),” MSU safety Mark McLaurin said.

It was Brown who got the Rebels (6-6, 3-5) off and running early on as they seized momentum. Ole Miss received the opening kickoff and 39 seconds later, the Rebels were in the end zone. Brown had a 58-yard reception on the drive that set up Jordan Wilkins for a 22-yard touchdown run. Just like that, Ole Miss was up 7-0.

From that moment on, Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4) was forced to play a game of catch up and couldn’t get out of its own way. Fitzgerald threw an interception on MSU’s first possession and things only got worse for the Bulldogs from there.

Only moments later, Fitzgerald was out of the game following his brutal injury. Thompson was in.

The true freshman who had played in eight games this season prior to Thursday, mostly in mop-up duty when games were in hand, was thrust into a pressure-packed moment for the first time.

By the end of the evening, Thompson put together a solid night for himself. He passed for 195 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 121 yards and a score. However for three quarters, all Thompson and the MSU offense managed was six points courtesy of a pair of field goals by Jace Christmann.

“There really weren’t many nerves,” Thompson said of his performance. “It was my first Egg Bowl, but I didn’t feel any pressure or anything like that. I think I was ready to play, I just made some critical mistakes. If I hadn’t, maybe the game would have gone another way.”

MSU’s errors proved to be too much to overcome. Despite the Bulldogs out-gaining the Rebels in total yardage 501-355 for the night, Ole Miss was comfortably in control by the fourth quarter up 24-6.

Mississippi State rallied with three touchdowns in the final period, the last of which pulled State within a field goal with 1:05 left to play, but the Bulldogs’ ensuing onside kick attempt was recovered by the Rebels. That sent the Golden Egg back northward to Oxford.

“Obviously it’s frustrating for us,” Mullen said. “It’s a big game. You want to find a way to go win that game.

“Unfortunately we just ran out of time at the end. I thought our guys gave great effort for the entire 60 minutes, I just wish we had 61 or 62.”

The MSU loss put a sour taste at the end of what has been another strong regular season for the Bulldogs. A win Thursday would have given State its third nine-win season in the last four years. That didn’t happen.
It could still transpire with a victory in whatever bowl game Mississippi State plays in, but after Thursday, MSU wasn’t very concerned with all that. Instead, all thoughts were on a Thanksgiving that ended up spoiled.

“Very disappointed,” McLaurin said.