Mullen, Fitzgerald Preview Top 20 Matchup Between MSU and Georgia

Vernon Bailey, Publisher
Bulldog Blitz
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen previewed his 3-0 Bulldogs’ Southeastern Conference road showdown with No. 11 Georgia at his weekly press conference on Monday.

Junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, the SEC Offensive Player of the Week, also met with members of the media. Fitzgerald accounted for four touchdowns in a 37-7 blowout of then-No. 11 LSU on Saturday. The Richmond Hill, Ga., native returns to his home state this weekend and currently leads all SEC players in touchdowns responsible with 12.

Kickoff for No. 17 MSU and No. 11 Georgia is set for 6 p.m. CT/7 p.m. ET Saturday in Sanford Stadium. Joe Tessitore, Todd Blackledge and Holly Rowe will call the action on ESPN. In addition, the SEC announced that State’s Sept. 30 game at Auburn will kick off at 5 p.m. CT live on ESPN.

For more information on the Bulldogs, follow the MSU football team on Twitter, like them on Facebook and join them on Instagram by searching for "HailStateFB." All-access coverage is also available on SnapChat by searching for "HailStateSnap.

Head Coach Dan Mullen

Opening statement…

“It’s a big challenge for us this week after coming off a big home win last week over a Top 15 team. One of the great things about the SEC, unlike just about every other conference, is usually when you get a big-time win over a top 15 team, you load up and play a team ranked even higher the next week. We get to do that this week, going on the road to Georgia and playing a top team in the SEC East. It crosses over every year; but this year, it looks like we’re going to end up playing the top two teams in the East, Georgia and Kentucky. We’ve got this tough challenge right now, going on the road playing in a tough environment against an excellent football team. It’s a different environment. Last week, we had our home SEC opener with a different level of play and a different style of game from our first two games. This week coming back, it’s our first SEC road game, which adds different challenges to the picture. The environment, the crowd noise – all those things are a little bit different. We don’t play Georgia very often. It’s only the third time since I’ve been head coach here that we’re going to be playing Georgia. We won’t be playing them again for another seven years after this. There’s some uniqueness in it. We’re going to have to come out and improve a great deal off of last week. We need to take steps forward if we want to succeed and win.”


On freshman kicker Jace Christmann earning the starting spot against LSU…

“Percentage-wise, he put the most through the uprights in practice last week. At the end of the week, we used simple math and looked at the percentages. He had the highest percentage of makes during practice, so we went with him. He did a good job in the game.”

On how the game atmosphere against LSU affected recruiting…

“Any time you have that type of atmosphere, that’s something we wanted to come here and build – creating a home-field advantage and creating an unbelievable gameday atmosphere. Over the last nine years, it’s something we’ve focused on. Attendance numbers are up 20,000 per game from nine years ago, and that’s a major increase. We’re up over 30 percent in attendance in the last nine years. I said nine years ago to all our fans when I got here, it works if they show up and create an unbelievable environment. Then, we start winning. It doesn’t go the opposite way. They need to show up first, and then we’ll win. They’ve done that. They’ve done that throughout the years. They continue to do that, and you saw that Saturday night. It’s a major factor in us succeeding, not just during that game, but also recruiting – creating that type of environment. When kids come to campus, they want to come play in it. And it’s not just in football; it’s in other sports. Other sports have different recruits at games. They see this unbelievable environment and say, ‘This is something I want to be a part of.’”

On leading the league in scoring and second in scoring defense…

“I’d feel great about it if we’d played 12 games already; but after three, we’ll see. Statistics are hard to measure through three games in a season. There’s a lot of different variables with who everybody plays within the schedule. If we can be near the top in both categories at the end of the season, I think we’ll be good.”


On the depth of the defensive line…

“We constantly talk about building the depth of guys being ready for when their opportunity comes. Brian Baker is now going into year two. I think he now understands the expectations of rolling guys through and getting guys ready to play so you don’t get in a situation where you have a defensive lineman who’s played 85 snaps in a game. We’ve tried to grow and build that depth. Guys are taking advantage of their opportunities. We’re a young team. There’s a lot of young players on this team. There’s not a senior on the defensive line, and yet you’re going to add some guys next year.”


On what junior defensive back Johnathan Abram has brought to the team …

“Since he’s been here on campus, he’s a guy that has a great personality, great demeanor and a really good work ethic. One of the things again is we want to play a bunch of players and roll a bunch of guys through. It allows them to be fresh and play harder through four quarters. He obviously played in this style of defense a little when he was a freshman, so I think there’s a little bit of understanding in the schemes. That helped him pick it up faster. He has a tremendous work ethic and a drive, and he’s unbelievably self-motivated to go out there and seize those reps. It’s a fantastic thing when you look at the balance. Not one of our safeties played more than 40 reps in that game. It keeps you fresh in that game, so in the fourth quarter when we had they lead and they were trying to come back, we had a lot of fresh guys on the field. For the long term of the season, they’re fresher as the year goes on.”


On how junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald will handle returning to his home state of Georgia…

“Hopefully, he’s okay to handle it. We’ll see. I’ll see if he looks weird or gives me silly looks. He better get his emotions in check because we’re playing a very athletic defense. Watching the film will straighten out those emotions pretty quickly.”


On personnel challenges presented by Georgia…

“Besides all their five-star players? They do a lot well. They’ve got big, athletic guys on defense. They can play in multiple fronts on the defensive line and play you with personnel that fits each of those fronts. They can play in 3-4 with 3-4 personnel, 4-3 with 4-3 personnel or nickel with nickel personnel with a five-star player at each of those positions. They’re pretty darn good. On the other side of the ball, you can say, ‘Okay, let’s stop this running back.’ They have two of the top running backs in the country, and both of them have a little different style. I’ve always been a big believer in saying, ‘Okay, how does one running back compare to another?’ Those two guys can run the same play, but it’s going to be very different depending on who runs it just because of the style of the backs. They’ve got some athletic receivers that can stretch the field. At quarterback, one five-star quarterback goes out and another five-star quarterback goes in.”


On injury updates with Gabe Myles, Cory Thomas and Malik Dear…

“Gabe will be questionable, and Cory will be out this week. We’ll see if Gabe makes it back. We’ll see how it goes with Malik. He practiced at the end of last week. He’s medically cleared to play. Our question is at what percentage he is. We’ll see how he feels and how he’s moving to see if he’s physically ready to go.”


On coaching freshman offensive lineman Stewart Reese…

“Stewart’s a pretty mature kid and pretty sharp guy, so he understands the challenges he’s in. He takes it seriously and focuses on his improvement. The thing I’m probably most pleased with is it doesn’t seem he’s been bothered by the stage he’s been put on and having to go block some of the guys he’s had to block. He hasn’t been perfect, but hasn’t been bothered by that, embraced it and continued to improve his game. He’s played better from one week to the next so far in all three weeks this season.”


On the offensive line’s cohesiveness…

“There’s some good personalities with leadership. I think a lot of that was set during training camp. When Elgton was banged up during training camp, Martinez went right in and played center. Here’s a guy that’s getting a lot of national attention as a tackle and unselfishly and immediately goes to center. I think that kind of sets the tone for the group of, ‘Hey, it really doesn’t matter what spot you’re at. If all five of us work together to get the job done, we’ll be successful. If all five of us do work together, we will have success no matter what position we have to play.’ With different combinations, sometimes we do have a couple guys who get comfortable. It’s not like, ‘I can only function with this one guy next to me.’ It’s, ‘I can function with different combinations on the field and be confident.”


On assistant coach D.J. Looney’s contributions as a former member of Georgia’s coaching staff…

“You watch the film and say they’re running this defense, and he says, ‘Yeah, they’re running that defense.’ You say, ‘Thanks, I saw that on film already.’ I don’t think it gives us a big advantage. He’s going to know some of the personnel a little bit better than he would on a normal week, but I don’t know if there’s any significant advantage to that.”


On the defense’s efficiency on third down…

“One of the big factors is the defensive staff. Todd [Grantham] does a great job of scheming. Another factor is the opponents we’re playing and to get some pressure and mix up the looks while we’re doing it. He’s got to hold the ball a little longer than he wants to, and all of a sudden we’re creating some pressure, whether it’s with our blitzes or just our front four. I think that’s a big deal. I think our secondary has been playing better this season, and that helps. I think another thing is how hard those 11 guys run the ball. If all of a sudden a pass is completed, we have guys swarming to the football. If they do run the ball or somebody breaks a tackle, we have guys swarming the football. It’s eliminating the run after catch for first downs. I think all those things have contributed.”


On the health of the team after playing LSU…

“[Athletic trainer] Dan Jacobi sometimes is like the grim reaper walking in after a game, but he came out and said we ended up pretty healthy walking out of it, nothing more than normal Sunday bumps and bruises. That’s pretty fortunate.”


On Nick Fitzgerald’s improved decision making…

“Decision making comes down to the processing of information, how fast you can process it and how comfortable you are on the field. You’re really starting to see him process it and take what the defense gives him. A lot of times with young quarterbacks, what will happen is we’ll practice something and they’ll expect a look. When it doesn’t happen that exact same way, it’s almost like they wish it to happen that way, and they’re going to throw it. As they mature, when things don’t turn out exactly the way we practiced, are you still making good decisions? You see it, and you just take what the defense gives you. He’s maturing that way.”


QB Nick Fitzgerald

On what the offense did well against LSU…

“We just played a complete game. There are obviously a few plays here and there that we had a mistake or it just wasn’t working out. Ultimately, we had great push in the offensive line. Running the ball, we had great blocking from the offensive line. Throwing the ball, we had good blocking in the perimeter, and they were running good routes. It was a pretty, complete, good game on the offensive side of the ball. We never really had trouble running or passing; we just did our job and moved the ball.”

On his confidence in the offensive line…

“I think it’s just experience. They showed a lot of promise and a lot of good things during camp. Coach [John] Hevesy has been pushing them hard. They’ve been taking coaching in strides, trying to work on it and trying to get better. They mesh together and play well together. You saw it starting from week one. They were good, and they’ve just gotten better ever since.”

On returning to his home state of Georgia…

“It’s just another game. It’s still a team we’ve got to go face and got to go beat. I’ll have some extra friends and family there, some I probably haven’t played in front of since high school. I don’t really have a chip on my shoulder or anything like that. I know the reasons why people weren’t looking at me. I know it’s hard to take a chance on a guy that didn’t start at quarterback until his senior year. Mississippi State did, and I’m glad I’m here. It couldn’t have worked out better for me. It’s just another game. I went and talked to some coaches there and went to camps all four years I was in high school. I did try to get recruited by them if I could. I went there a few times, but it just didn’t connect.”

On his confidence in the tight ends…

“You see it just like I do. They’re producing very well. They’re playing well. Coach Looney has them coached up really well. I couldn’t really ask more from them. They’re doing their job; they’re kicking butt. They’re catching passes, and they’re blocking.”

On having his high school coach in the stands against Georgia…

“I think he and his family are going to be there. I’m excited to see him again and play in front of him. I’m sure he’ll probably cringe every time I throw the ball. We’ll see how that goes for him.”

On facing Georgia’s defense…

“They’re fast, they’re physical, they’re sound. They run some base stuff and some other crazy stuff sometimes. It’s going to come down to what we did this past week, and that’s going to be consistently doing our jobs and worrying about each play at a time to get the ball down the field.”

On the size of the offensive line…

“They’re huge. I love it. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re talented. I love every single one of them. I couldn’t ask more from them. I’m so glad they’re jelling together, and everyone just kind of takes on their role and works hard. We’re a team. As an offense, it starts with them.”

On his uncle Charles Pledger, a former football player at Georgia…

“He’s going to be wearing maroon. He told me plenty of times, ‘Hey, I’ll be there for the first time ever in Athens not wearing red and black.’ He’s excited. He’s happy for me. He couldn’t be more proud. If you can find him, you’ll see him in a Mississippi State shirt somewhere.”

On his confidence in Jace Christmann…

“Compared to last year, I definitely feel a lot more comfortable. If we don’t put it in the end zone, I know we’ll at least get three points. We have plenty of great field-goal kickers. Jace started, played lights out and kicked great. I couldn’t ask for more from him. He’s a good guy and works his butt off. I’m happy for him. It’s definitely good to have confidence that if we don’t put it in the end zone, we can get close, get three points and worry about it next drive.”

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