December 30, 2017 10:53:45 PM
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Mississippi State interim head football coach Greg Knox met with his starting quarterback for the month, Keytaon Thompson, as soon as MSU turned its attention from the Dan Mullen departure to the TaxSlayer Bowl. Knox knew a freshman backup might not have as much of the playbook as his predecessor, so Knox decided to attack it head on.
Instead of spending all of bowl practice finding out what Thompson can run well and what he can't, he just handed Thompson a game plan sheet and told him to highlight what he felt comfortable with. The end result was somewhere in the range of 50 to 60 plays.
A theme showed itself: Thompson would be doing a lot of running.
That is exactly what happened Saturday, as Thompson's first college start saw him run 27 times for 147 yards and three touchdowns. He also threw for 127 yards as No. 24 MSU (9-4) beat Louisville (8-5) 31-27 in comeback fashion.
MSU trailed twice in the second half; both times, a Thompson rushing touchdown erased that lead.
"We knew going into the game he had to run the football," Knox said. "If you go back and look at Mississippi State over the years, when Nick Fitzgerald ran the ball for 100 yards, we were winning football games.
"We knew (Thompson) had to run the ball. We didn't care if he was a freshman, we didn't care if he was starting his first game."
The heavy rushing workload also could have served as a confidence booster for a freshman in his first start, but Thompson said he didn't need it.
"I came out really confident," Thompson said. "I thought we would come out, score on the first drive and continue to score; they made some adjustments as we knew they would and we had to adjust on the fly.
"A few guys thought I was going to be nervous, but I felt confident. I have a great offensive line, I have a great defense, I have great running backs, I have great receivers, there's nothing to be nervous about."
Thompson showed that on his first play from scrimmage: On a 29-yard completion to tight end Jordan Thomas, Thompson said Thomas was actually his third read. It was only after scanning his first and second options did he find Thomas open for the first play of what was a six-play, 56-yard touchdown drive.
Rankin, Bryant missed halves
MSU safety Brandon Bryant did not play at all in the first half and was only seen sparingly in the second half, including once as part of MSU's kickoff team when he drew and unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Left tackle Martinas Rankin did not play in the second half with an ankle injury. The injury is not expected to hinder the senior as he prepares for the upcoming NFL Draft.
One of the most elusive quarterbacks in college football history, Louisville's Lamar Jackson, was sacked six times by the MSU defense for a total of 42 yards lost. While MSU did bring some of its trademark exotic blitzes it used so often over the regular season, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said after the game MSU didn't blitz as much as he expected it to.
That meant a lot of the behind-the-line production was left to the defensive line, which did not disappoint.
"We knew their offensive line was as dominant as us and our defensive linemen came into the game thinking we were going to win our 1-on-1s," MSU defensive tackle and Macon native Jeffery Simmons said. "Especially their center, their center was going to be a good matchup for me because he wasn't too good. We came out, played to our standard and had a great night."
Simmons had two tackles, one for a loss, with 0.5 sacks.
MSU safety Mark McLaurin, in intercepting Jackson three times, became the first Bulldog to do so since Richie Brown had three interceptions against Texas A&M in 2014. He is the first MSU player to have three interceptions in a bowl game.
Running back and West Point native Aeris Williams' 88 yards pushed his season total to 1,107, which is eighth in MSU single-season history.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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