Lamar Jackson and Louisville fell to Mississippi State on Saturday. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A bowl billed as the Heisman winner vs. the top-10 defense lived up to its billing and introduced Mississippi State fans to a new star as the No. 23 Bulldogs survived against Louisville and superstar Lamar Jackson 31-27 on Saturday in the TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field.
Jackson set a bowl record with 158 rushing yards for the Cardinals (8-5), but Mississippi State's defense intercepted him four times -- three by safety Mark McLaurin -- and sacked him six times. And in the end, the Bulldogs (9-4) batted down Jackson's Hail Mary in the end zone to secure the win.
"Today we talked about going out and playing four quarters," Mississippi State interim coach Greg Knox said. "It took four quarters to win that ballgame. We knew what we were facing, Heisman Trophy winner, a guy that was capable of putting the team on his back and carrying them to victory.
"But our defense, we talked about playing to their identity, fast, physical, tough. I thought we did that as a team."
And the new star?
Freshman backup quarterback Keytaon Thompson rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns while passing for 127 yards. He led the Bulldogs on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter in a tremendous show of poise.
"We knew (running) is what he does best so we wanted to capitalize on that," Knox said. "I gave him our playsheet and told him to mark the ones that he felt most comfortable with and we worked from there. ... And he threw some nice passes. I thought our O-line did a great job of protecting him, giving him time to throw. He was able to sit in the pocket."
Thompson handled the pressure of the starting role well. The Bulldogs took an early 7-0 lead, scoring rather easily on a 56-yard drive capped by an Aeris Williams 5-yard run.
Louisville answered with a nine-play, 51-yard touchdown drive, which was punctuated by a 5-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Charles Standberry.
Thompson helped the Bulldogs march right back down the field 79 yards and capped the drive with a 14-yard touchdown scamper for a 14-7 lead.
Jackson matched Thompson's touchdown run with one of his own to start the third quarter, tying the score 14-14.
After Mississippi State got a 23-yard field goal from Jace Christmann, the Cardinals executed a lightning-quick, three-play, 88-yard touchdown drive in the final minute before halftime. Jackson broke free for a 75-yard run, the longest of his career, and then found Jaylen Smith in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown on the next play.
Up 21-17 at the half despite being outgained 244-223 and converting on just two of seven third downs, Louisville added to its lead with a 23-yard field goal by Blanton Creque with 3:14 left in the third quarter.
But Mississippi State wasn't done. The Bulldogs intercepted Jackson twice in the third quarter and then capitalized on Jackson's third interception, a pass that bounced off the hands of Louisville receiver Smith, with a four-play, 22-yard touchdown drive to tie the score at 24-24 early in the fourth quarter.
Creque's 31-yard field goal gave Louisville the lead, but Thompson led Mississippi State on a game-winning, 11-play touchdown drive. On third-and-9 with under four minutes left, Thompson rushed 13 yards to within inches of the goal line. The Bulldogs punched it in on the next play, taking a 31-27 lead after the extra point.
Jackson, who hadn't thrown an interception since October before Saturday's game, tossed his fourth pick as Louisville tried to drive back down. It was a backbreaker for the Cardinals, giving Mississippi State the ball back with just 2:31 left.
"Coach made a great play call at the end," McLaurin said. "D-line got great movement, especially on the quarterback. The corner ran a blitz. He got home. I (saw) the slant. I really didn't think he was going to throw it. I stepped up."
The Bulldogs weren't able to run out the clock and Louisville got the ball back with 1:39 left. Sacked twice, Jackson converted a fourth-and-20 play, and had a chance for a Hail Mary, but the pass was batted away in the end zone, securing the Bulldog win.
A dejected Jackson was asked about the interceptions in the postgame interview room.
"That was just miscommunication by me. That is on me, nobody else," Jackson said.
"That's not true," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino replied. "We win together and lose together. Lamar is a great competitor. Obviously he's got big shoulders. But he worked extremely hard. He competed extremely hard. We're in a position to win the game because of how hard he ran the ball, the touchdowns he made."
Knox and his fellow coaches were coaching their final game at Mississippi State. Holdovers from the Dan Mullen staff, they agreed to coach the bowl game while new coach Joe Moorman hired his coaching staff. After the win, Knox, interim defensive coordinator Ron English and other coaches were seen joyfully hugging the players in an emotional moment.
"The last three, four weeks we've been together, it's been a tough time for everyone. A lot of emotions," Knox said.
NOTES: Lamar Jackson is the only player in FBS history to rush for at least 1,500 yards and pass for at least 3,500 yards in a season. He has now done it twice (2016 and 2017). ... Jackson also entered the 50-50 club with 50 career touchdowns rushing and 50 career touchdowns passing, joining Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow as the only players in FBS history with career totals above 50 and 50. ... Louisville WR Jaylen Smith had seven catches for 107 yards. ... Attendance at the TaxSlayer Bowl was 41,310 with the crowd fairly evenly split between Louisville and Mississippi State fans.