Leistikow: Iowa's third try at beating Joe Moorhead starts with stopping Nick Fitzgerald

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

TAMPA, Fla. — For Iowa to beat seven-point favorite Mississippi State in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl, it’ll have to do something it hasn’t before.

Solve a Joe Moorhead offense.

Now the first-year head coach of Mississippi State, Moorhead gave the Hawkeyes fits in 2016 and 2017 as Penn State’s offensive coordinator. Of course, it helped that he had an otherworldly talent in running back Saquon Barkley, but the Nittany Lions racked up 599 yards in Happy Valley in 2016, then another 579 in Iowa City the following year — two of the highest totals ever accrued against a Kirk Ferentz-coached Hawkeye team.

The importance that Nick Fitzgerald plays to Mississippi State's offense is akin to what Tim Tebow meant to Florida years ago. The senior is the Bulldogs' leading rusher, with more than 1,000 yards this season.

This Mississippi State offense is not nearly as accomplished as those Penn State offenses. But it should look familiar with the way it uses a running quarterback.

“A significant amount of carryover,” Moorhead said Saturday in the final media availability for coaches here prior to Tuesday’s 11 a.m. CT game at Raymond James Stadium.

“(But) our belief is that you want to have your scheme match your personnel, not your personnel match your scheme.”

At Penn State, the catalyst was Trace McSorley.

At Mississippi State, it’s Nick Fitzgerald.

All Fitzgerald has done in his career is break Tim Tebow’s Southeastern Conference record for rushing yardage by a quarterback. With one game left in his college career, Fitzgerald has accounted for 3,504 yards on the ground and 6,055 through the air.

Safe to say, the Hawkeyes are well schooled on the importance of the Bulldog that wears No. 7.

“He is their primary ball carrier,” defensive end Parker Hesse said, “so we’re going to treat him as such.”

Fitzgerald is more Tebow than McSorley. He’s built like a tight end — 6-foot-5, 230 pounds — and can run with power and speed.

The power: “He doesn’t slide much. He likes to lower his shoulder,” Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert said.

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The speed: “He’s faster than what you think,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “You sit there watching him on film, and you start to see some of the guys he’s running away from.”

Considering Mississippi State has the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (at 12.0 points per game), Iowa's defense has to be almost perfect.

Stop Fitzgerald, stop the Bulldogs.

In Mississippi State’s four losses, Fitzgerald averaged 2.2 yards per carry and threw zero touchdown passes with five interceptions. The Bulldogs were held to 7, 6, 3 and 0 points in those games.

In its eight wins, he’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry with 15 TD tosses and two INTs. He’s rushed for at least 85 yards in every win.

What makes containing Fitzgerald difficult is that when he keeps the ball, Mississippi State has an extra blocker on every play. (By comparison, when Iowa's Nate Stanley hands off to a running back, he becomes a non-factor in the play.)

That's tough math for a defense.

While Fitzgerald packs a different skill set, the way he is used is similar to how Nebraska uses Adrian Martinez.

Though Iowa beat the Cornhuskers, 31-28, Martinez’s dual-threat ability posed problems. And, of course, McSorley finished his career 3-0 against Iowa.

Having a chance against Fitzgerald starts up front. Iowa is well-equipped at the defensive end, with Hesse, Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa among the team’s top players.

“The better we are up front,” Parker said, “that helps us out.”

Colbert and Jack Hockaday, Iowa’s two inside linebackers, need to have sure-tackling games. Maybe Kristian Welch or Nick Niemann, both bigger-bodied linebackers, get chances if the starters struggle with the defense's primary task.

Fitzgerald has improved his passing play, too. Since a four-interception game against LSU on Oct. 20, he hasn't been picked off in 102 attempts. And the Bulldogs are 4-1 in those games, the only loss coming to No. 1 Alabama.

"If it’s a designed QB run, it’s really dangerous. If it’s a pass play and he breaks the pocket, he can make you pay," Nelson said. "There’s a lot of ways he can hurt you."

Iowa should find confidence in that it completely over-matched two run-dominated opponents.

After switching to a 4-2-5 base defense, the Hawkeyes shut out Maryland (which put up 51 points on Ohio State) and Illinois (which hung 55 on Minnesota).

They’ll deploy the 4-2-5 again Tuesday.

“We take pride in stopping the run as a defense,” Hesse said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Parker typically shoots to hold an opponent to 13 points or less, figuring the offense can get to 14. Iowa hasn’t lost a game when holding an opponent to 13 points or less since it happened twice in 2012.

Given Mississippi State’s defensive prowess? Iowa might need to make that number 10.

And it all starts with stopping No. 7.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.