Considering all the changes the #23 Bulldogs underwent prior to the game, they ended their season on a high note. The victory was Mississippi State’s third consecutive bowl win, setting a new school record.
TaxSlayer Bowl Recap
In what was likely Jackson’s final game in a Cardinals uniform, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner’s performance wasn’t his finest.
He was outplayed by Mississippi State’s true freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson, whose outstanding play provided a glimpse at the bright future of Bulldogs football.
Mississippi State scored on its first possession thanks to a five-yard rushing touchdown from junior running back Aeris Williams to take an early 7-0 lead.
Louisville answered with a five-yard score of their own when Jackson connected with senior tight end Charles Standberry to tie the game at 7.
The Bulldogs continued to trade scores as Thompson ran in from 14-yards out to put them in front 14-7. This capped a nine-play, three-minute drive highlighted by a 24-yard run from Thompson to set up the touchdown.
After forcing Louisville to punt, Mississippi State embarked on a 14-play drive looking to extend their lead in the second quarter. Freshman Jace Christmann, however, was unable to do so missing a 42-yard field goal.
Following the miss, Jackson evened the score at 14 with a spectacular 13-yard run. Leading up to the touchdown, it appeared junior wide receiver Jaylen Smith fumbled on a 35-yard pass, but the play wasn’t reviewed.
With the Cardinals threatening to score again after a Mississippi State punt, Jackson was intercepted by junior cornerback Mark McLaurin.
The Bulldogs capitalized on the turnover with a 23-yard field goal to take a 17-14 advantage.
Louisville’s next drive ended with another interception, this time by freshman cornerback Cameron Dantzler.
With under a minute remaining in the half, Jackson broke off a 75-yard run to put Louisville in Bulldogs territory. On the next play, Jackson hit Smith for an 11-yard touchdown to put the Cardinals in front 21-17.
After an eventful first half, both teams struggled to find their rhythm in the third quarter.
On Louisville’s opening second half possession, they went three-and-out. As the Bulldogs prepared to start their drive, senior wide receiver Gabe Myles fumbled on the return. The Cardinals recovered and had great field position as a result.
Louisville couldn’t take advantage of the miscue, however, as sophomore Blanton Creque missed a 37-yard field goal.
The turnover fest continued when Thompson was intercepted by senior safety Chucky Williams after both teams exchanged punts.
Louisville didn’t let the mistake go to waste, converting a 23-yard field goal to increase their lead to 24-17.
On the Cardinals following drive, Jackson threw his third interception of the game to start the fourth quarter. McLaurin, for the second time, was on the receiving end of Jackson’s misfire.
Mississippi State turned the error into points as Thompson ran in for a 2-yard touchdown, his second of the day, to tie the game at 24.
Louisville replied with a 31-yard field goal on a 13-play, 61-yard drive to regain the lead at 27-24.
The Bulldogs, not to be outdone, went on an 11-play, 65-yard drive capped by a one-yard touchdown run from Thompson, his third of the game. This put them back in front 31-27.
Jackson, looking to lead Louisville to a comeback victory, was intercepted for the fourth time on the Cardinals next drive. Once again, McLaurin was the recipient for the third time.
After Mississippi State turned the ball over on downs, Louisville had one last chance to win the game. The Bulldogs defense stepped up, however, knocking the ball down on a Hail Mary attempt to seal the victory.
In a game where Mississippi State was short-handed on the coaching staff and without its starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, they overcame adversity to finish their season strong.
Although they were projected, in the pre-season, to finish second-last in the SEC, the Bulldogs proved their doubters wrong by winning nine games and becoming the conference’s first bowl win this year.
With an anemic passing attack, Mississippi State relied on their run game for success. They racked up 277 yards rushing, nearly 100 more than Louisville, as well as 404 total yards.
Fitzgerald’s replacement, Keytaon Thompson, carried the offensive load in what was a coming out party for the true freshman. Making his first career start, he threw for 127 yards with one interception, but did most of his damage on the ground rushing for 147 yards on 27 carries with three touchdowns.
“He was phenomenal,” said interim head coach Greg Knox. “We knew that’s what he did best. If you go back and look at Mississippi State over the year, when Nick Fitzgerald ran the ball for a hundred yards, we were winning games. So we knew he had to run the ball today.”
Aeris Williams provided a solid change-of-pace rushing for 88 yards on 12 carries with one touchdown. He also averaged over seven yards per carry.
As the Bulldogs lack perimeter threats, this game didn’t inspire much confidence in the receiver group going forward. Their leading receiver, Jesse Jackson, only had three receptions for 38 yards.
McLaurin won game MVP honors after intercepting three passes to bring his season total to six. He also had 11 tackles, with a half tackle for loss, and one pass deflection.
Abram was all over the field finishing with nine tackles, two of those for loss, one and a half sacks, and two pass deflections. Sweat, a constant presence in Louisville’s backfield, had four tackles, with three tackles for loss, and one sack.
Jace Christmann made one of two field goals and all four extra point attempts. His longest kick was from 23-yards out.
So Close Yet So Far
Louisville had ample opportunities to win this game, but in the end, turnovers killed any hope they had of making a rally.
Junior quarterback Lamar Jackson, who performed sensational all year, probably wishes he could have this game back. Although he rushed for a TaxSlayer Bowl record 158 yards, he threw a career-high four interceptions.
Many of his throws were off-target, either high, behind, or late, which resulted in his unusual turnover rate for the game.
Jackson did, however, become the third player in FBS history to have 50 passing and rushing touchdowns in their career. He also joined Vince Young as the only quarterbacks to run for at least 150 yards in multiple bowl games.
Through the air, Jaylen Smith was Jackson’s favorite target. He had seven catches for 107 yards and one touchdown.
Thomas finished with nine tackles, one of those for loss, and one sack; while Young had 10 tackles, with three tackles for loss, and one sack.
Blanton Creque converted on two of three field goals and all three extra point attempts. His longest kick was from 31-yards out.
The Bulldogs open their 2018 season against FCS foe Stephen F. Austin on September 1st in Starkville, Mississippi.
With Fitzgerald returning from injury, the offense should continue to run the ball effectively. If incoming four-star recruits Stephen Guidry, Malik Heath, and Devonta Jason can ignite the passing game, defenses won’t be able to stack the box anymore.
On defense, Mississippi State returns most of their starters. With another year of experience under their belt, the defense should only get better.
Considering the talent the Bulldogs have, they could be a team to watch next season.
The Cardinals open their 2018 season against perennial power Alabama on September 1st in Orlando, Florida.
The biggest question is whether Jackson will declare early for the 2018 NFL draft. As he has nothing left to prove in college, many believe he’ll depart for the pros.
If he does leave, sophomore Jawon Pass is the presumptive successor. The former four-star recruit has the talent to be successful, but stepping into the shoes of arguably Louisville’s greatest player is a tough task.
On defense, Louisville loses eight starters. Among them are star junior cornerback Jaire Alexander and leading sacker James Hearns. Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon will rely on many new faces next year to produce.
The Cardinals are a contender if Jackson returns, but if he doesn’t they’re probably headed for a rebuild.