The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

Bulldogs capture TaxSlayer Bowl win, begin new era

Taylor Rayburn | Sports Editor

Mississippi State University’s football team gathers together after their TaxSlayer Bowl win to take a celebratory photo. 

JACKSONVILLE, FL — With a skeleton crew of a coaching staff and a true freshman making his first start, many expected Mississippi State University (9-4, 4-4 SEC) to get run out of the stadium by former Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and his University of Louisville (8-5, 4-4 ACC) Cardinals.

However, there is a reason football games are not played on paper, and the TaxSlayer bowl proved this as MSU gutted out a 31-27 victory.

With head coach Dan Mullen gone, running backs coach and special teams coach Greg Knox took over as the interim head coach.

Knox said before the game the team talked about playing the entire game.

“Today we talked about going out and playing four quarters,” Knox said. “It took four quarters to win that ballgame.”

The game went back and forth in its entirety, with the UL taking a 24-17 lead into halftime. The two teams slowed down in the second half and entered the fourth quarter with the same score. MSU then scored two touchdowns to take a 31-27 lead and held onto that lead at the end of the game as Jackson threw one last heave to the end zone which was batted down.

Many players were emotional on the field after the game. Throughout the game, it was evident how much this group of players and coaches, none of which will be retained, cared about winning this game.

“These guys, I’ve been in their homes, recruited them,” Knox said. “We’re all family. We’re all family. As a family, we share that emotion. Today, that was family out there that won that game. It was family showing a lot of emotion.”

Quarterback Keytaon Thompson reiterated Knox’s sentiment.

“That is what won us the game, family” Thompson said. “With the situation we were handed, coaches leaving and players being hurt. it takes a family to come together in a situation and fight a tough game against a Heisman trophy winner and come out with the victory.”

He said the win was emotional because the team spent the entire bowl practice surrounded by rumors about which coaches Moorhead might add, and how they would play without a full coaching staff.

“Today I think that’s what you saw on the field,” Knox said. “It was a chance for everyone to just breathe a sigh of relief and say, Thank you, God, for this win.”

MSU’s true freshman goes toe to toe with former Heisman winner

Keytaon Thompson is a name MSU fans are going to want to remember. The true freshman quarterback from New Orleans who was just out of high school at this time a year ago, arguably outplayed the Lamar Jackson. This statement would have sounded crazy before this game.

Knox said they focused on Thompson running the football and had Thompson pick out plays from the playbook he was comfortable running. On the day Thompson finished the game with 27 carries and 147 yards rushing. He also scored three touchdowns on the ground.

“We didn’t care if he was a freshman,” Knox said. “We didn’t care if he was starting his first game, all right? We knew we could tee some things up for him to run the ball and he could have success.”

Thompson’s calmness was the most impressive thing about him. Thompson did not look like he was starting his first game, he was patient in the pocket and went through his reads. He called out and made adjustments to whatever blitzes UL threw at him. He carried himself like a senior, not a first-time starter.

“I was not nervous at all,” Thompson said. “A few guys probably thought I would be nervous but I had a lot of confidence. I have a great O-line, a great defense, great running backs, great receivers, so there was nothing to be nervous about.”

Thompson also threw the ball well. He was 9-11 going into halftime, and finished the game 11-20 for 127 yards and threw one interception, his one blunder of the day. He finished with an efficiency rating of 98.3. As a comparison, Jackson went 13-31 through the air for 171 yards and two touchdowns but threw four picks with an efficiency rating of 83.8.

McLaurin, defensive line dominate Louisville

While Thompson gutted it out and played well, it was safety Mark McLaurin, a junior from Collins, who won the TaxSlayer Bowl MVP award.

McLaurin led the MSU defense in tackles with 11, eight of which were solo tackles. However, the three interceptions McLaurin caught won him the award. In such a close game, the turnovers won MSU the game. The turnovers came at clutch moments where UL was looking to pull away or in the case of the last interception, as they were trying to drive down the field for a game-winning score.

“Mark told me, he said ‘I am going to make sure you win this game. I am going to make sure you win your first start’,” Thompson said. “That is what he did.”

McLaurin gave the credit for his play to the seven guys in front of him. He credited MSU’s linebackers and defensive line for putting pressure on Jackson and forcing him to make bad decisions as well as the coaching calls, specifically on the third interception that all but sealed the game.

“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 MSU defensive line completely overmatched the Louisville offensive line the entire game. MSU got 11 tackles for loss on the day and sacked Jackson six times.

Sophomore Jeffrey Simmons talked about areas of the UL offensive line MSU exploited.

“Their offensive line was not as dominant as us (the MSU defensive line),” Simmons said. “Coming into this game we thought we would win one-on-ones. Especially with the center, we knew the center would be a good matchup for me and we came out and met out standard.”

The end of an era

The Dan Mullen era is officially over, if it was not already. In the spring, Joe Moorhead will lead practices behind the Leo Seal Football Complex on campus.

Mullen’s run of nine years was the best in the history of the school, but tonight showcased that MSU football is more than Mullen and the win is something the team can build off of going forward.

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Bulldogs capture TaxSlayer Bowl win, begin new era