Keytaon Thompson scored three rushing touchdowns Saturday to help Mississippi State overcome the Lamar Jackson-led Louisville Cardinals for a 31-27 victory in the 2017 TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.
Jackson finished the game, and perhaps his college career, with 329 yards of offense (171 passing and 158 rushing), three total touchdowns and four interceptions. The quarterback must now decide whether to enter the 2018 NFL draft or return for his senior season.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were forced to play without starting QB Nick Fitzgerald, who's recovering from an ankle injury. The program received a glimpse of the future courtesy of a strong outing from Thompson. The true freshman backup tallied 274 total yards in his first career start.
Mississippi State played under the guidance of interim head coach Greg Knox following Dan Mullen's departure for Florida. Former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will take over the program for the 2018 campaign.
Despite the changes, the Bulldogs came out firing on all cylinders, taking their first drive 56 yards in six plays to grab the lead inside the opening five minutes. Aeris Williams scampered in from five yards for the score.
It was a seesaw battle throughout the first half as the sides traded six scores (three touchdowns for Louisville; two touchdowns and a field goal for Mississippi State).
ESPN Stats & Info noted Jackson's 13-yard TD run early in the second quarter moved him into exclusive company:
Sporting News spotlighted the juke-filled scoring play:
The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner played a key role in helping the Cardinals grab a 21-17 lead right before halftime. After a Bulldogs turnover deep in Louisville territory, Jackson had a 75-yard run to get the offense in scoring position and then threw a touchdown pass to Jaylen Smith with 19 seconds left.
Deion Sanders, who's in both the Pro and College Football Hall of Fame, provided high praise for what he's seen from Jackson compared to the other potential 2018 draft prospects:
Louisville kicker Blanton Creque provided the only points of the third quarter with a 23-yard field goal to stretch the lead to seven.
Mississippi State got level early in the fourth, though. It took advantage of terrific field position after a Jackson interception, covering 22 yards in four plays with Thompson powering in from the 2-yard line to help make it 24-24.
Thompson added his second rushing score of the fourth quarter with less than four minutes left to help put the Bulldogs up 31-27, their first advantage since midway through the second period.
The Clarion-Ledger's Will Sammon discussed the QB's impressive drive:
This time they didn't let it slip away.
Safety Mark McLaurin intercepted his third pass of the day to thwart Louisville's first bid to retake the lead. After the Mississippi State offense burned most of the remaining clock, the Bulldogs defense came up with two key sacks on the final drive to complete the upset.
The team noted McLaurin earned the game's MVP honors:
FanSided's Patrick Schmidt provided a note about the triumph:
Looking ahead, the focus shifts to Jackson's NFL decision. Saturday's performance was a microcosm of his junior campaign. The explosive plays and off-the-chart tools are there, but the question is whether he's consistent enough as a passer to become a franchise quarterback in the NFL next year.
Although he doesn't have a lot left to prove in college, the expected depth of the 2018 QB class is also a consideration. He'd likely be up against the likes of Josh Rosen (UCLA), Sam Darnold (USC), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and Josh Allen (Wyoming) during the draft process.
So, while it wouldn't come as a surprise to see him declare for the draft, there are reasons for him to consider sticking with the Cardinals with the hope of emerging as the clear No. 1 in 2019.