STARKVILLE — A few members of Mississippi State’s training staff helped Nick Fitzgerald off the field and onto a cart after the quarterback suffered a gruesome ankle injury on the Bulldogs’ second drive of the game.
As Fitzgerald sat on the cart, he raised his thumb to the crowd and then began motioning his arm as if he was ringing a cowbell. Mississippi State players jogged from the sideline to wish their leader well. The final player to see Fitzgerald before the junior was driven away was Keytaon Thompson, who exchanged words with moist eyes before taking over at quarterback.
It was an ugly dislocated ankle injury for Fitzgerald and an ominous scene for the Bulldogs — from there, things only worsened for Mississippi State, which lost, 31-28, to Ole Miss Thursday night at Davis Wade Stadium.
The 2017 Egg Bowl will be remembered for its images, and for Mississippi State, none of them were good.
“Obviously, frustrating for us,” Dan Mullen said.
There was the scene of Fitzgerald being carted off the field. There was the image of D.K. Metcalf imitating a dog urinating in the end zone after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter. And, lastly, there was the sight of an Ole Miss flag waving in the air after Rebels supporters ran with it onto the field when time expired.
The Bulldogs’ regular season ended in the worst way imaginable: falling to rival Ole Miss while losing Fitzgerald to a gruesome injury.
So now what?
“I don’t think it has totally sunk in yet,” senior receiver Gabe Myles said.
The Bulldogs were just ranked No. 14 in the latest College Football Playoff poll. They were favored to beat the Rebels by 17 points. They were ticketed for a smooth road toward the Citrus Bowl with a 9-3 record before everything for the Bulldogs went wrong.
Instead, Mississippi State is 8-4, will tumble in the next poll and will wind up somewhere such as Nashville for the Music City Bowl, Houston for the Texas Bowl or elsewhere.
Warranted or not, there is more uncertainty as rumors and speculation will continue this weekend involving Mullen and the attractive jobs and potential openings around the country.
“I plan on it,” Mullen said when asked directly if he will be the Bulldogs’ coach next season. “As I’ve said, I’m very, very happy here with what we’ve built. The program that we’ve built is pretty special. John (Cohen) and Dr. (Mark) Keenum told me they want me to continue to be the head coach here. Before the game, they did. We’ll see right now. That’s obviously something I’ll talk to them about in the next couple of days. What we’re going to continue to do is build the program in the right direction.”
While MSU works to maintain Mullen as its coach, it is left with the unwanted feelings of a season-ending with an unexpected loss. In a game that predictably featured two pre-game scuffles, chippiness throughout and was full of momentum swings, MSU scored 15 straight points to give itself a shot but ultimately ran out of time.
Thompson’s 1-yard touchdown with 1:05 left provided the final margin. MSU didn’t have any timeouts at that point and did not recover the onside kick attempt. Thompson, who is expected to start in the bowl game, was 13 for 27 for 195 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He ran for 121 yards on 26 carries.
“I learned a lot tonight,” Thompson said. “I’ll take it all into the next game. Just minus the mistakes that we had because other than that, we moved the ball pretty well.”
But that was the issue for MSU in this year’s Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs lost their quarterback, needed to lean on a true freshman and committed an uncharacteristic number of turnovers (five).
“We’re very disappointed with the outcome of the game,” safety Mark McLaurin said. “We have to learn how to execute and take care of the ball. We have a bowl game, so we have to continue fighting, but this one hurts.”