Mullen, Fitzgerald preview top 20 matchup between MSU and Alabama

The Bulldogs host the Crimson Tide at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Posted: Nov. 7, 2017 8:53 AM
Updated: Nov. 7, 2017 9:32 AM

STARKVILLE, Miss. (WTVA/MSU Athletics) – A Top 20 matchup in Davis Wade Stadium is on tap this Saturday when No. 16/18 Mississippi State faces No. 2/1 Alabama as head coach Dan Mullen and junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald held their weekly news conference on Monday to preview the contest.

Kickoff for the Bulldogs and Tide is 6 p.m. CT live on ESPN. In addition, the league office announced that MSU’s SEC road game at Arkansas on Nov. 18 will kick off at either 11 a.m. CT on CBS or 6 p.m. CT on ESPN or ESPN2. The official time will be unveiled following the completion of games this Saturday.

Below are quotes from Mullen and Fitzgerald:

Head Coach Dan Mullen
November 6, 2017

Opening statement…

“Great challenge for our guys this week, obviously playing the best team in the country, a team that’s really been the dominant program in college football over the last 10 years. We get to play them every year. We know them well. They’ve got explosive players all over the field. They’ve got one of the top defenses, if not the best defense, in the country coming at you with a lot of depth, rotating a lot of guys through. They’ve got really good, big, physical-style guys up front that are very disciplined, fundamentally-sound and great-tackling linebackers. And they have guys that can cover you throughout the entire secondary. Offensively, they’ve got a play-making quarterback. They’ve got some dynamic wide receivers that can beat you deep or run after the catch with the ball in their hands. Big offensive line. They’ve got a lot of depth at running back; I think they’re five-deep at running back. They’re obviously a very talented team that knows how to win, so it’ll be a huge challenge for us this week. It’s Veterans Day, so that’ll be cool. We’ve got a cool uniform that we’ll be wearing. It’s a great challenge. It’s what you come and play in the SEC for, for these type of games.”

On how to convince the team to believe in what may seem out of reach…

“Same way we’ve done it all along. Mississippi State’s never been able to go to a lot of bowl games, never been the No. 1 in the country, never had a lot of winning records. It’s just what we’ve done. That’s what the program is, and we’ve tried to build here. That’s what the whole thing is based on. Same as we’ve done for every other aspect of building this program.”

On how to stop Alabama’s quarterback Jalen Hurts…

“You’ve got to stop him. You’ve got to stop the running backs. You’ve got to stop the tight ends and the receivers. That’s basically the game plan: you’ve got to stop all of them. It’s not one guy. They’re certainly not a one-man show, so you’ve got to stop them.”

On the team’s identity on defense…

“It’s obviously a fast, physical, aggressive defense that gets after you on every single snap. You watch, and we’ve been able to do that – take advantage of things, be aggressive. We’ve played very good defense. We’ve given up too many big plays on the defensive side of the ball. Todd [Grantham] and I look, if you take out some of the big explosives – not the 12 to 15-yard explosive plays, the big explosive plays – statistically, we’ve had a great year defensively without those. I think the game the other day, they had 180 yards on three plays. You go back to other games, we’ve given up some of those 60 to 70-yard plays. Overall, besides that, the identity of our defense is playing fast, physical, aggressive-style defense.”

On junior linebacker Gerri Green and other team injuries…

“He should be okay to play. He should be cleared. Some of the guys, we won’t know until later in the week. Like everybody, we’ve got a lot of guys banged up. The next guy’s got to step up and go play.”

On playing a perfect game…

“In my mind, you’ve got to play a perfect game to beat anybody in college football. You’ve got to come out and play great, or you can’t expect to win in today’s college football. You look at Saturday, I thought we had a great week of practice. I thought we had great preparation leading into that game. I don’t think we came out and executed that clean, but we found a way to make plays to win at the end. If you don’t do that every week, you’re not going to expect to win no matter who you’re playing.”

On opening the run game for quarterback Nick Fitzgerald…

“Hopefully run better. Block a little better.”

On the lack of explosive plays on offense…

“We’re always looking for explosives and some games we have a lot more than others. We had some chances for explosives Saturday. You’ve got to execute those. Two of our interceptions came on what could have been explosive plays. They ended up being negative plays for us. That kind of stuff happens sometimes.”

On junior running back Aeris Williams’ impact on the offense…

“He’s huge. I always talk about that. With the carries he has, the offense kind of goes through him. He sets the tempo of the game for us with his ability to pound the run and carry the ball. He leads the team by far in carries. To be physical between the tackles is huge. I tell him, ‘You’ve got to go explode and run away from people to get touchdowns. You can’t get tackled inside the 5-yard line to get the touchdowns.’ But it is critical, his play. That style of play sets up everything else within the offense.”

On how to coach for leaping plays to block extra points and field goals…

“You don’t leap. If you can jump straight-up vertically, you can do that. But you better have a guy where you jump from that has an unbelievable vertical and length. I don’t know if we have somebody of that nature. I could go see if Ben [Howland] could let us borrow somebody or not to try to put in that scheme. With the rules applied, you look at what best suits your team, so we don’t do that.”

On the young receiving core…

“They’re coming along. They’re being forced into situations you wouldn’t expect them to be forced into right now. When you look at the depth, I think we had four or five scholarship receivers to play the game on Saturday. That’s not a lot, especially for us. Guys have got to step up and go make plays, and they’re getting a lot more reps and a lot of experience and good growing. You like it to be the other way when you can control how they grow and put them in good situations, but we don’t have that option right now. Those guys are forced to play a lot of plays. For the long term, for their future, it’s going to be pretty good.”

On how Nick Fitzgerald is so successful rushing the ball…

“There’s a lot of other people around that help that out. The offensive line, Aeris [Williams], all of those things allow him to do it. A lot of it is option plays, the defense trying to take other people away allows him to run the ball. We have less quarterback runs with him than any other quarterback we’ve had. It’s more option based. We don’t have a lot of quarterback-designed runs. It’s really the other facets that allow him to go do that, and he just makes good decisions.”

QB Nick Fitzgerald

On his growth under Dan Mullen in the past year…

“The difference in a year is huge. I have a lot more experience and playing in games. I have a lot more passing experience. Overall, I just have a lot more knowledge about football. I’m confident in my teammates around me, that we’re going to go out there and make plays. Last year was last year. This year is this year.”

On Alabama and the challenges that they present to the offense…

“They’re big and fast up front. They play a lot of pressure on us throwing the ball. You know, they were getting back there to me pretty quickly. They have really good coverage out in the field. Trying to run the ball wasn’t working too well, throwing the ball wasn’t working too well.”

On his resiliency…

“I took a lot of big hits last year, but I wasn’t going to stay down. My team needed me to get up and play and do whatever it was. It’s been the same this season. I’ve taken some big hits and popped right back up. It’s just about getting through it and fighting through it for your teammates. That respect has grown since then. It’s gone through a whole off-season and almost another whole season now, so it’s kind of grown into me stepping into a leadership role.”

On the play of the younger receivers, especially Reggie Todd…

“We have a lot of injuries at wide receiver. Some older guys have gotten hurt and some younger guys are having to step in. Reggie [Todd] has been showing a lot in practice, and he played well, too. He’s progressing like we thought he would. He can go make plays and really stretch the field. Hopefully, we can make that happen.”

On the role that Aeris Williams plays for the team…

“It’s huge. [Aeris Williams] is a very talented back there, running, blocking, everything about it. He’s very smart. He’s very good with protections and that kind of thing. Even when he isn’t getting the ball, he’s always going 100 percent, no matter what, whether he has the ball in his hand or not. That’s huge. It’s really selfless of him to play like that. It’s really big time for a guy to act that way. Obviously, he probably wants the ball as many times as he can get it; but when he doesn’t have it, he’s going 100 percent. He’s blocking his heart out. He’s doing everything he can to make sure that the offense runs smoothly.”

On reading the defense and decision making with the ball…

“It comes down to preparation for the game. You know in these certain looks, you might get a certain opportunity. If this guy goes this way or this happens, then I can pull the ball here. Truly, it kind of is in the moment. You’re reading a guy. If you think you can beat him around the edge then you pull it and go; but if not, you hand it off. The tie goes to whoever is going downhill. If I feel like I could pull it, but maybe not because Aeris [Williams] is going on a downhill run, I’m going hand it off and at least make sure we get it back to the line of scrimmage more than taking a chance and getting tackled in the backfield and losing yards.”

On his view of the offense has hard-nose running…

“When you’re having, eight, 10, 12-play drives, that are eating up a lot of clock a chunk at a time, then I guess so. I think of our offense as taking whatever the defense gives us. Whatever they give us, we’re going to take. I would love to score on one play every time, trust me, but whatever we get, we take. And we’re just going to keep moving the ball.”

On explosive plays…

“It’s recognizing the looks you have to have to get explosive plays and capitalizing on it. Hitting throws and making the catches downfield. It’s been there. It’s just kind of been off a little bit.”

On the mindset of the team headed into Saturday’s matchup with Alabama…

“We’re confident. There should never be a time when you line up across from someone and think you can’t beat them. I have full confidence in our team that we can win. They’re an extremely good football team, tops in the country. They have been for a while, and they play really well. You have to not worry about the name on their chest and just go out there and play your game.”

On if playing Alabama puts more pressure on the team…

“No. We take it one play at a time. It doesn’t matter who’s lined up across from you or at least it shouldn’t. We have to do what we have to do and worry about our 11 guys on the field, not theirs.”

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