Trailing LSU 23-3 midway through the third quarter of an eventual loss last September, Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald took the 3rd-and-3 snap from LSU's 29-yard-line. He danced in the shrinking pocket, looked downfield and threw a goal-line prayer to Donald Gray, who was blanked by Donte Jackson.
The pass was nearly intercepted.
Ten yards to Fitzgerald's right was Fred Ross, open near the line of scrimmage and in position to pick up the first down with a check-down catch-and-run. While Mississippi State converted on fourth down and later kicked a field goal to reduce the deficit to 17 points, it was a missed opportunity for the sophomore quarterback.
He finished 12-for-24 for 120 yards in the 23-20 loss.
Three hundred and sixty-four days later, Fitzgerald took a 1st-and-10 snap from LSU's 45-yard line on the Bulldogs' opening drive of the Week 3 game. Once again, he danced and looked downfield. Instead of forcing the ball to a covered Jesse Jackson, Fitzgerald checked down to Keith Mixon, setting up a manageable 2nd-and-5.
He finished 15-for-23 for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the 37-7 win.
Neither play proved to be pivotal moments in the game — Mississippi State punted later in the drive last week — but the latter represented a stark contrast in Fitzgerald's leap from irresponsible aggressiveness in 2016 to responsible game management in 2017. And that leap could earn the junior quarterback a beautiful gal, says Dan Mullen.
"The saying has always been 'Chicks dig the long ball,'" Fitzgerald told ESPN this week. "[Mullen will] say that then he'll look at you and say, 'But look at the guys in the NFL who have beautiful wives, beautiful girlfriends, and they check the ball down 95 percent of the time.' So obviously the really good-looking girls, they like the check downs."
Fitzgerald isn't checking down 95 percent of the time but he has led Mississippi State to a 3-0 start while adding seven points to his completion percentage and more than a yard to his yards-per-attempt average.
"He's got a ways to go." Mullen concedes. "But he has a great skill set in which to do it. He has the talent to do it. It's just honing that talent — probably over the next five years."
Maybe in five years he will be checking down 95 percent of the time for an NFL team as his beautiful wife watches.