Mississippi State junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald shakes hands with freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson as he is carted off the field after suffering an ankle injury in the first quarter. Photo by: Stan Beall/Special to The Dispatch
November 24, 2017 10:17:42 AM
STARKVILLE -- Reactions to the nightmare varied.
Kylin Hill didn't watch the final seconds. The Mississippi State freshman running back rested his head on senior Donald Gray's shoulder as the latter delivered an impassioned speech. Jeffery Simmons, Johnathan Abram, and Mark McLaurin had to be restrained by assistant coaches and staffers to keep their arguments with Ole Miss players from escalating. As soon the post-game rendezvous with the band was over, Leo Lewis ran the length of the field to the locker room.
The rest of the Bulldogs eventually joined Lewis after a 31-28 loss to Ole Miss in the Battle for the Golden Egg on Thursday night at Davis Wade Stadium.
The loss, which featured a season-ending injury to junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and five turnovers, marked a disappointing end to No. 16 MSU's (8-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference, No. 14 College Football Playoff) regular season.
With MSU trailing 7-0 with a little more than nine minutes remaining in the first quarter, two Ole Miss players converged to tackle Fitzgerald on a running play. One hit his leg, which was touching the ground. He had to be carted off the field.
MSU left tackle Martinas Rankin, who missed four games with an ankle injury, called it "a rough injury to see." The injury left Fitzgerald writhing on the field with at least a dislocated ankle. MSU coach Dan Mullen was unsure of a full diagnosis after the game.
Rankin couldn't find words for Fitzgerald as he was carted off the field to receive medical attention. He said there aren't words for moments like that. Fitzgerald found them for his replacement, freshman Keytaon Thompson.
"Nick just encouraged me to lead the team and step up," Thompson said. "He told me I had all the ability and talent to do it. He told me to go ball out."
Said Rankin, "My thought was, 'It's time to get Keytaon going.' We just knew as an offensive line, we had to go that extra mile for him."
MSU outgained Ole Miss 501-355, had 27 first downs, and had two offensive players set career highs. But MSU also committed a season-high five turnovers. The Bulldogs had committed three turnovers in a game only twice. It was the first time MSU lost three fumbles in a game since 2000 against Arkansas.
"It thought they did a good job of attacking the ball and getting a hat on the ball. That's on me. I didn't have great ball security," Thompson said. "The fumbles got to me. I hate fumbling the football. That's terrible. That's ball security, and I have to do better."
MSU held Ole Miss (6-6, 3-5) 117 yards and two points below its season averages, both of which rank in the top 20 nationally. But Ole Miss had three passes of 50 or more yards and two runs of 20 more yards. Two of those three 50-plus-yard passes went to former Starkville High School standout A.J. Brown (six catches, 167 yards), who set the Ole Miss single-season receiving record.
"We just didn't execute how we're supposed to," MSU safety Mark McLaurin said.
Both of the long runs -- 22 and 46 yards by Jordan Wilkins -- went for touchdowns. Two of the long passes -- a 77-yarder to Brown and a 63-yarder to D.K. Metcalf in the third quarter -- also went for scores.
MSU nearly erased the damage thanks to a 15-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to Deddrick Thomas, a 30-yard scoring run by former Columbus High standout Kylin Hill (13 carries, 82 yards), and a 1-yard touchdown run by Thompson. The last two scores came in the final five minutes and closed the deficit to three with 1:05 remaining.
"I think we just ran out of time at the end," Mullen said.
Thompson was 13-for-27 for 195 yards and an interception. He led the team with 26 carries for 121 yards. Former West Point High standout Aeris Williams had 20 carries for 75 yards.
Senior tight end Jordan Thomas had four catches and 65 yards.
Freshman linebacker Errol Thompson had five tackles, one-and-a-half sacks, and one forced fumble. Abram had a team-high eight tackles.
MSU, which is bowl eligible for a school-record eighth consecutive season under Mullen, will await its postseason destination Sunday, Dec. 3. Until then, Mullen and the Bulldogs will be left to stew in the memory of their Thanksgiving nightmare.
"Obviously frustrating. It was a big game, and you always want to go find a way to win that game," Mullen said. "Our guys battled. They continued to battle for four quarters. Things didn't go our way through much of the game, but we continued to battle, continued to fight, continued to compete for four quarters and try to make plays for four quarters.
"I think our guys did pretty well. They continued to go out there and continued to play. You look at the explosive plays we gave up and the turnovers. If you look at the stat line, you'd be hard pressed to think we didn't win the game unless you look at the turnovers and the explosive plays. That was the difference."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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