Iowa defense prepared for Mississippi State’s Fitzgerald

Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald will be one of the toughest challenges Iowa has faced all season.

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Iowa defense prepared for Mississippi State’s Fitzgerald

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald throws a pass during a practice at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida on Saturday Dec. 29, 2018.

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald throws a pass during a practice at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida on Saturday Dec. 29, 2018.

Nick Rohlman

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald throws a pass during a practice at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida on Saturday Dec. 29, 2018.

Nick Rohlman

Nick Rohlman

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald throws a pass during a practice at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida on Saturday Dec. 29, 2018.

Adam Hensley, Pregame Editor

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TAMPA, Fla. – Iowa has a tall task standing in its way on Tuesday. Literally.

Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs 230 pounds, and he’s arguably the most dynamic quarterback the Hawkeyes will face this season.

“He definitely brings another set of challenges to prepare for,” Hawkeye linebacker Jack Hockaday said. “You’ve got to prepare for him to run, and when they pass, you’ve got to have eyes back and be ready for him to scramble. It’s definitely a bigger challenge.”

Through the air, he’s a more than capable passer, with 6,055 passing yards and 54 touchdowns in his four-year Bulldog career. He’s completed passes at a 54.6 percent rate.

But on the ground is where Fitzgerald has created nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. This season, the senior broke the SEC’s record for career rushing yards by a quarterback. His total stands at 3,504 yards, and that number will grow against Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

“He’s a physical guy, he’s a downhill runner,” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said. “The strength of his game is definitely running the football… he’s a guy that’s tough to stop, he’s the engine to their offense.”

Mississippi is a run-first program, much like how Iowa likes to pride itself – that starts and ends with Fitzgerald. But, the Hawkeyes throw the ball considerably more than the Bulldogs.

In 11 games, Fitzgerald has 249 passing attempts – that’s 22.6 attempts per contest. In comparison, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley has 366 attempts in 12 games, averaging 30.5 throws a game.

This season, Fitzgerald has six games with at least 100 yards on the ground, with his season-high total of 195 coming earlier in the year against Auburn.

“We’ve got to do a real good job of when they are setting up to pass, containing him, keeping him in the pocket, and make him uncomfortable. When they use him as a runner, [we need to] make sure we keep him with no big plays, no explosive plays. When we get a chance to hit him, make them physical, violent hits.”

Fitzgerald is certainly stoppable, though.

Against some of the better defenses Mississippi State has faced, he’s struggled. The quarterback had just 32 yards on the ground against Florida, 20 against Kentucky, and then in the team’s ninth game of the season, Alabama held Fitzgerald to -23 rushing yards.

Iowa’s sixth-ranked run defense ranks ahead of Alabama’s, holding opponents to 102.8 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry.

“Everybody has to be on the same page, pretty much. On defense, everybody has a certain gap, a certain responsibility, and everybody’s got to be in tune,” Hockaday said. “Everybody has to be on the same page, a lot of communication.”

But this isn’t the first time Iowa’s taken on a dual-threat signal caller this season. Gervase said that Fitzgerald reminds him of Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey, Penn State’s Trace McSorley – the only difference being the Bulldog quarterback is “a little bigger, a little more physical.”

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