The most dynamic player in all of college football takes on Mississippi State’s stout defense in this year’s Taxslayer Bowl.
The Taxslayer Bowl features two teams that entered the season with high hopes but stumbled along the way. Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald looked poised to become a Heisman Trophy contender, but struggled with interceptions in SEC play before being lost for the season after dislocating his ankle against Ole Miss. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson had another sensational year for the Cardinals, but their porous defense kept Louisville from becoming a title contender in the ACC.
These two teams are slated to meet December 30th at 11:00 a.m. Central Time and can be seen on ESPN.
Storylines Heading Into the Game
Dan Mullen leaves for Florida - Head coach Dan Mullen decided to leave Starkville to take the head coaching job at Florida after nine years of coaching the Bulldogs. Mullen was one of the most successful Mississippi State head coaches ever, winning the second-most games in school history. Mullen is also taking a few assistants with him, including defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. In his first year at Mississippi State, Grantham helped rebuild a defense that ranked 110th last year in yards allowed per game, as the Bulldogs have jumped to 10th in the nation.
With Mullen out the door, Mississippi State wasted no time by hiring Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead as their next head coach. Moorhead guided the Nittany Lion offense to 41.6 points per game, and could have similar success with Fitzgerald returning next season. Moorhead will not coach in the bowl game, however, as interim coach Greg Knox will coach in the bowl game. All of this coaching upheaval creates uncertainty as to if Mississippi State can succeed with Mullen and Grantham now gone.
Cardinals finish strong after rough stretch - Louisville played some of their best football in the final stretch of the regular season, winning their final three games after losing three of their previous four. Their offense has been consistent most of the year, scoring at least 30 points in ten of their twelve games. The problem has been their defense. The Cardinals rank 71st in points allowed per game (27.1) but have only given up 16 points per game during their current winning streak.
The defensive resurgence is in part to due to the return of cornerback Jaire Alexander, who played in the team’s final three games after missing six games this year due to a knee injury. However, Alexander, along with sack leader James Hearns, won’t be playing in the bowl game as they prepare for the NFL Draft. Without these two key defensive players, Louisville’s defense may return to their struggling ways.
Nick Fitzgerald injury - As I mentioned earlier, starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is out for the year after a gruesome injury in the season finale against Ole Miss. After a hard hit in the first quarter, Fitzgerald’s foot was turned the opposite way. After laying on the ground in pain for several minutes, Fitzgerald had to be carted off the field. He was later diagnosed with a dislocated ankle and a broken bone in his ankle.
Without Fitzgerald, freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson steps into the starting role. Thompson, like Fitzgerald, is a dual threat, mobile quarterback that fits the same offensive system. Thompson threw for 195 yards and rushed for another 121 yards in the Ole Miss game, leading the Bulldogs to 28 points. Luckily for Thompson, he’s had a month to get reps in practice to help him get comfortable with the offense. Despite losing Fitzgerald, expect the Mississippi State’s offense to be effective with Thompson under center.
120.25 - Lamar Jackson is having another Heisman-like campaign this year, but has been overshadowed by Baker Mayfield’s stellar play for Oklahoma. Jackson needs just 54 passing yards and 128 rushing yards on Saturday to match his marks from a season ago. He’s averaging 120.25 rushing yards per game, showing that he is still the dynamic player that he was a year ago. Pro Football Focus gave Jackson a rushing grade of 93.1, highest among all FBS quarterbacks. Mississippi State will have their hands full with Jackson’s athletic ability.
Louisville QB Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, finished with the highest overall rushing grade for a QB, which was second among all FBS ball carriers this season. pic.twitter.com/vUzLDJwJcV— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 5, 2017
46.1% vs. 31% - Third downs are crucial in every game, and on Saturday we’ll see two of the best third down teams in the nation clash. Louisville’s offense is converting 46.1% of their third downs (11th in the nation), while the Bulldogs are only allowing 31% of third downs to be converted on defense (12th in the nation). Jackson’s athleticism gives him the ability to scramble for first downs, which Mississippi State will need to contain. Something’s got to give in this strength vs. strength battle, as this will be one of the most intriguing matchups to watch on Saturday.
249.6 - Mississippi State’s identity on offense has been ground and pound all season long. The Bulldogs are averaging 249.6 rushing yards per game, ranking 14th in the nation and third in the SEC. The duo of Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams has led the rushing attack, combining for a combined average of 166.9 rushing yards per game.
Aeris Williams, RB, Mississippi State - Williams is the workhorse for Mississippi State, and he’ll only get more touches with Fitzgerald sidelined. Williams is the team’s leading rusher with 1,019 yards and five touchdowns so far this year. Williams did struggle in SEC play, however. He only reached the 100-yard mark once in conference play and averaged just 75 yards per game against the stout SEC defenses. Williams has a favorable matchup against Louisville’s 53rd ranked run defense, which isn’t nearly as good as the SEC defenses that Williams has faced. Expect Williams to get anywhere from 20 to 30 touches on Saturday with the freshman Thompson under center, and potentially have a big game.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville - For perhaps the last time, Jackson will be tasked with carrying the Cardinal’s offense. Although Jackson is only a junior this year, he’s currently one of the top quarterback prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft and appears ready to take the next step. His rare combination of athleticism and pocket passing ability draws comparisons of Michael Vick, who was drafted first overall in the 2001 draft by the Atlanta Falcons.
There isn’t a player more important to the Louisville Cardinals than Jackson. He’ll once again have to light up the scoreboard in what will probably be a high scoring affair due to Louisville’s defense. Even if Jackson puts up 30 points, it still might not be enough. In Louisville’s four losses, the offense has scored an average of 30 points per game. Jackson will have to be efficient with each possession he gets, and cannot afford to turn the ball over.
Why Mississippi State wins
To put it simply, Mississippi State is the more complete football team. Although they’ll be without Fitzgerald, their ground attack should have little problem moving the ball against Louisville’s subpar defense. Thompson showed that he is capable of running the football effectively, as he’ll continue to get carries in the Bulldogs’ read-option system.
The Bulldogs won’t be able to stop Lamar Jackson. Jackson will be the most dynamic player that Mississippi State has seen all year, and will test every aspect of their defense. They can, however, slow him down by containing him inside the pocket and creating turnovers. This is easier said than done, but it can be done. Clemson held Jackson and the Cardinal offense to 21 points, while Kent State picked off Jackson twice and held him to just 34 rushing yards. Jackson will be the most dynamic player that Mississippi State has seen all year, and will test their speed on defense.
Why Louisville wins
Losing your head coach is no small task to overcome, and can take a full season to adjust to a new head coach. Mississippi State is just a few weeks removed from losing Mullen, along with other members of the coaching staff. The Bulldogs don’t have enough time to gel with their new coaches, creating uncertainty. Toss in the fact that they’re also playing without their starting quarterback, and Louisville appears to have the upper hand.
Jackson should be able to put up at least 25 points for Louisville, if not more. The key for Louisville is getting stops on defense and giving Jackson a cushion to work with. With the inexperienced Thompson starting for the Bulldogs, he’ll probably make a few mistakes when dropping back to pass. He completed less than 50% of his passes against Ole Miss and also lost two fumbles. If the Cardinals can generate turnovers, they’ll be in good shape to win their first bowl game since 2015.
Thompson’s play will almost certainly determine Mississippi State’s fate in this game. He struggled out of the gates against Ole Miss, but seemed to find a rhythm late by leading the Bulldogs to 22 points in the fourth quarter. With a month to prepare for this game, he’ll settle in earlier and be much more comfortable.
Lamar Jackson and the Louisville offense will score their fair share of points, but their defense will let them down once again. Playing without Alexander and Hearns will show, as they will struggle to stop Mississippi State’s ground and pound style. The Bulldogs will prevail, giving them their third-straight bowl victory.
Mississippi State 34, Louisville 27
Edited by Brian Kang.
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