2017 has been a season of highs and lows for the Louisville Cardinals. On the one hand, they failed to get past Clemson yet again, and tough losses to NC State, Boston College, and Wake Forest derailed a campaign that began with hopes of an ACC Championship and a College Football Playoff bid. On the other hand, Lamar Jackson has a chance to become just the second player ever to win consecutive Heisman Trophies, a defense that has been criticized for not doing enough to win games is about to get an influx of elite talent courtesy of a top-25 recruiting class, and the brief glimpses we’ve seen of future starting quarterback Jawon “Puma” Pass should ease U of L fans’ concerns about a drop-off in play should Jackson make the expected leap to the NFL.
The Cards may not be headed to the CFP, but with eight wins this year, they will be traveling to Jacksonville on December 29th for a pre-New Year’s tussle with Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: WHO THEY ARE
Located in Starkville, MS–about half an hour closer to SEC West-rival Alabama’s campus than it is to Mississippi’s capital, Jackson–Mississippi State has given the world its most celebrated author of courtroom-based fiction and a long list of professional athletes, especially baseball players. Their football team has been steadily competitive for the better part of the last two and a half decades, with the five-year run of Sylvester Croom marking the only major lull in terms of on-field success (though at least Croom was the first African-American head coach in SEC history, hopefully breaking that barrier for good).
The Dan Mullen era, which began in 2009, has been good to the Bulldogs. They’ve racked up eight consecutive bowl appearances, three seasons finishing the year ranked in the AP poll, and a steady increase in NFL-caliber talent that has produced alumni such as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Mullen’s success earned him the opportunity to return to Florida, where he once worked as offensive coordinator, to take the reins there. He’ll be replaced by Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, whose fast, high-scoring style should fit this roster in much the same way.
As far as this game is concerned, though, MSU might be in trouble. Not only is Mullen not coaching the TaxSlayer Bowl–running backs coach/special teams coordinator Greg Knox will be running the show, but the Bulldogs will be missing star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald as they face a Louisville defense led by coordinator Peter Sirmon, in his first year with the team after coaching this same MSU squad last season.
ROAD TO THE BOWL
Realistically speaking, Mississippi State’s season went as well as can be expected. They lost four games this season, but two of them–Georgia and Alabama–were to CFP teams, and the Tide only won by seven. One loss (Auburn) was the team that won the SEC West, and one (Mississippi) was the game in which Fitzgerald got hurt. They won most of their games in a dominant fashion, including wins by 30+ against SEC foes (and bowl teams) LSU and Kentucky.
However, it is important to note that any success the Bulldogs have achieved this year has come with Mullen and Fitzgerald. Neither will be present in Jacksonville on the 29th, so whatever version of this team Louisville ends up facing isn’t going to be as potent as the version that’s been on the field for most of the year.
MSU will be relying on Fitzgerald’s freshman understudy, Keytaon Thompson–who has less than 100 snaps under his belt this season–to jump right in and go play-for-play with Jackson. But while Thompson may be inexperienced, he does average about the same amount of yards per play as Fitzgerald, both in the air and on the ground. He’ll also have plenty of support from running backs Aeris Williams (1019 yards this year), as well as Kylin Hill and Nick Gibson (both averaging five yards per carry). If there’s a plus to having Knox as the playcaller for this game, it’s that there’s no one better qualified to know what these backs are capable of, and to put them in the best position to rip off chunks of yardage.
Where Louisville has the edge is that Mississippi State might be the most one-dimensional offense of any school that doesn’t run a triple-option scheme. Even before Fitzgerald’s injury, the Bulldogs passed so infrequently that their leading receiver, Keith Mixon, has only 275 total yards for the entire season. And with Mixon questionable to play due to a foot injury of his own, Sirmon might be able to redirect his very skilled, physical secondary to play in run support. Having Chucky Williams in the box to help keep an eye on Williams and Thompson is going to limit the amount of big plays MSU is capable of.
Mullen took defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with him to Florida. That’s not good news for the Bulldogs, as Grantham–the former U of L defensive coordinator–might have been able to impart some wisdom on how to stop Jackson. The 2016 Heisman winner has shown amazing growth as a player this season, increasing his completion percentage and yards per carry while cutting down on turnovers dramatically. He still accounts for the overwhelming majority of Louisville’s offense by himself–over 5000 total yards and 40 touchdowns for the second straight year–but with the shift of Reggie Bonafon (seven rushing touchdowns) to running back, and the rise of receivers Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick, he’s not the only player opposing defenses have to worry about.
The MSU defense has struggled against the run this year, with all but two opponents rushing for at least 100 yards. Their worst performances in that department–Auburn and Alabama–came against dual-threat quarterbacks like Jackson, although those teams did have more depth at running back than what Louisville brings to the table. To compensate, Jackson will have to continue to sell read-option plays as effectively as he typically has, while getting the ball into Smith and Fitzpatrick’s hands as quickly as possible on slants and screens. Tight end Charles Standberry should play a prominent role as well, as his size and skill with routes across the middle can open up running lanes if the MSU defense starts to clog them up.
U OF L 37, MSU 17 Unless Thompson is a much better passer than Fitzgerald, and Knox decides to play this game more vertically, the Cardinals will know what kind of play is coming before the ball is even snapped. This will lead to a lot of three-and-outs, giving Jackson the opportunity to gash a Bulldog defense that should be spending a lot of time on the field. NFL scouts, for reasons unknown, will continue to question Jackson’s ability to play QB in the pros even as they watch him hang 400 yards and four scores on an SEC defense.
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