Members of the Mississippi State football team celebrate a 31-27 victory over Louisville at Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl. Photo by: Melina Vastola/USA TODAY Sports
December 30, 2017 10:55:25 PM
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- On the field, Aeris Williams was running for 15 yards and a first down. Louisville was burning all of its timeouts in a last-ditch effort to win while a senior defensive back Chucky Williams was being ejected for targeting.
There remained a pocket of the Mississippi State sideline that had not the slightest of ideas that any of this was going on. All eyes were on safety Mark McLaurin.
McLaurin's three interceptions of Louisville quarterback and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson made him the MVP of a 31-27 comeback win in the TaxSlayer Bowl for No. 24 MSU (9-4) over the Cardinals (8-4). It was a fitting cap to a breakout junior season for the Collins native: he led the team with 77 tackles and six interceptions on top of six pass breakups.
His first two interceptions have MSU the ball on the Louisville 20-yard line and the 22, leading to six MSU points that the sputtering MSU offense needed. It was his third interception that nearly sealed the game.
McLaurin saw the defensive line in front of him pressure Jackson and the blitzing cornerback add chaos on top of it, all while watching a Louisville receiver cross into his path on a slant.
"I didn't think he was going to throw it," McLaurin said, "but I stepped up and it was just sitting there."
McLaurin spent the next 10 minutes as the toast of the MSU sideline, receiving lengthy embraces from safeties coach and interim defensive coordinator Ron English and cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley. In hindsight, the latter two men deserve almost as much credit for McLaurin's interceptions as he does.
McLaurin credited the weeks of film study and preparation for his positioning throughout the game. The differences for his position may not have been drastic, but the difference in the defense as a whole was certainly enough for Louisville. Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino noticed a difference in the defense English ran from the one run all season by former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
"I thought they didn't blitz as much as I was expecting," Petrino said. "They started off playing pretty base; they were a situational blitz team and they did that. They didn't do anything that we didn't practice for or prepare for."
Afterward, Petrino and Jackson bounced around a few theories for the interceptions: MSU cornerback Cameron Dantzler also intercepted Jackson to make four in total. Petrino said all interceptions can be attributed to the entire team; Jackson responded by claiming they were all miscommunications on his part, a claim Petrino quickly deemed as false.
Whatever the culprit, McLaurin said the MSU defense, "played, reacted and had fun today."
After the month the team endured leading up to the game, fun was exactly what it needed.
The wake of the Dan Mullen departure left its mark on a team that was made clear in celebrating the bowl game win. D.J. Looney -- in his first year coaching the tight ends at his alma mater -- had tears in his eyes as he celebrated with both tight ends and offensive linemen. (Looney took on the offensive line coach role after former position coach John Hevesy left to join Mullen's staff at Florida.) MSU interim head coach and running backs coach Greg Knox was emotional as he hugged his running backs after the trophy presentation.
"It's been the last three or four weeks that we've been together. It's been a tough time for everyone. Everyone's dealing with things differently," Knox said. "There's a lot of emotions and I think you saw that on the field today.
"We're family out there. We're a family and we share that emotion, and that's what you saw out there today in that game."
MSU defensive tackle and Macon native Jeffery Simmons called it a product of the team staying together after Mullen left. On Saturday, with new head coach Joe Moorhead looking on from the athletic director's suite, they celebrated that fact one last time.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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