FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Nick Fitzgerald has established himself as nothing short of one of the Southeastern Conference’s top quarterbacks, if not the best, in his two seasons at the starter at Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs junior added another moment to his growing legacy in Starkville on Saturday, rallying No. 17 Mississippi State (8-3, 4-3) for a 28-21 win over reeling Arkansas.
Fitzgerald accounted for three touchdowns and totaled 254 yards in the win, finishing 12-of-23 passing for 153 yards and rushing 22 times for 101 yards. It wasn’t until he connected with Deddrick Thomas for a 6-yard touchdown with 17 seconds remaining, however, that the Bulldogs had their first lead of the game.
The score capped the second game-winning drive in the fourth quarter of Fitzgerald’s career. His other came in a St. Petersburg Bowl win over Miami (Ohio) last season, a game in which the Bulldogs scored with more than 12 minutes remaining and held on for the victory.
Saturday’s winning drive came in the final minutes of the game, and it helped Mississippi State survive a lackluster performance that featured four fumbles.
“There was never any doubt we were going to win,” Fitzgerald said. “The last drive we went out there with full confidence and we knew we were going to punch it in.”
The Bulldogs have now won at least eight games in a season for the fourth time in coach Dan Mullen’s nine years. They had already earned bowl eligibility for a school-record eighth straight season, but Saturday was a welcomed win a week after a disappointing loss to No. 1 Alabama .
It came at the expense of an Arkansas (4-7, 1-6) team that’s now lost nine of its last 13 games, delivering yet another blow to the future of embattled Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema in the process. The former Wisconsin coach is now 29-33 overall in his fifth season at Arkansas, 11-28 in the SEC.
“It’s horrible, it really, really is,” Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen said. “You want to go out there and win the game for (Bielema). That’s what we wanted to do today. It didn’t happen for us. We were right there. We didn’t do enough.”
The Razorbacks led by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but Fitzgerald tied the game with a 37-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Todd with 4:07 remaining.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema then went for it on a fourth-and-2 from the Razorbacks 44, and the Bulldogs held. Nine plays later, Thomas scored to give Mississippi State its fifth win in six games against Arkansas.
“We said the last night we were going to do everything we can to win this game,” Bielema said. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep swinging, keep fighting, and obviously that was an example of it.”
David Williams led Arkansas with 75 yards rushing on eight carries, while Allen completed 11 of 17 passes for 119 yards.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost 31-24 a week ago to No. 1 Alabama, with the Crimson Tide scoring in the final minute for the victory. Mississippi State played as if it were still recovering from that setback. The Bulldogs lost three fumbles, including one on a botched punt return, after they had run four plays. Despite the early struggles, Fitzgerald accounted for 178 of his yards in the second half and Mullen refused to believe Mississippi State was suffering from an Alabama hangover. “I didn’t drink since last Saturday night,” Mullen joked. “I didn’t have a hangover, I was fine. I don’t think so. I think we had a great week of preparation.”
Arkansas: The Razorbacks entered the game last in the SEC while allowing an average of 6.57 yards per play on defense, but they held the Bulldogs to only 130 yards in the first half that ended 14-14. Arkansas defensive end McTelvin Agim was at the forefront of the defense’s stellar performance, finishing with nine tackles, 2 ½ tackles for losses, including a sack and two forced fumbles.
KELLEY ON HAND
Arkansas backup quarterback Cole Kelley was in the crowd in Razorback Stadium on Saturday, a week after he was suspended following his arrest for suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Bielema said he expects the freshman, who started four games while Allen was injured, to rejoin the team on Sunday.
Mississippi State hosts Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl on Thursday.
The Razorbacks close out the regular season by hosting Missouri on Friday.
Follow Kurt Voigt on Twitter @Kurt_Voigt_AP