Mississippi State Team News

With Nick Fitzgerald out, Keytaon Thompson has tough task vs. Louisville

Keytaon Thompson
Matt Bush/USA TODAY Sports

Nobody expected Keytaon Thompson to quarterback Mississippi State in a bowl game. But here he is, and the Bulldogs’ true freshman is excited by the chance.

Entering his first game as the starter, Thompson said he’s ready to take on the challenge of facing of Louisville in Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville.

Thompson moved into the first-team role during the Egg Bowl in November, when starter Nick Fitzgerald sustained a grotesque fracture and dislocation of his ankle. That injury ended Fitzgerald’s season just shy of the 1,000-yard rushing mark. He is expected back for spring practice.

Though Fitzgerald’s season is finished, he’s become the most high-profile cheerleader for Thompson. “Nick’s great. He helps take the pressure off and he keeps me loose,” Thompson said.

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In addition to the Egg Bowl, Thompson played in several other games, getting good results on the ground (299 yards, 6.2 yards per carry) but not faring so well in the passing game (a completion percentage below 46 percent). Now that he’s had a full set of practices with the first unit, Thompson said he’s feeling more confident than before.

“I’m very confident, with all the extra reps and knowing that I’ll be playing and starting in a bowl game. … My coaches and teammates have all the confidence in me, and that helps a lot,” Thompson said.

Thompson will need that confidence. Wide receiver Donald Gray, the Bulldogs’ most seasoned target at wide receiver, will miss the TaxSlayer Bowl after hernia surgery.

Thompson’s work is impressing interim coach Greg Knox, who will be coaching his one and only game before Joe Moorhead takes command.

“As you watch him develop, he’s getting better and better every day,” Knox said.

For Thompson, there’s also the opportunity to give the program’s outgoing staff members, including quarterback coach Brett Elliott, a good exit from Mississippi State.

“We just want to go out with a bang,” Thompson said.

On paper, the matchup of a true freshman in his first start and Heisman-winning quarterback in Lamar Jackson would seem like a nightmare for Mississippi State. But the recent bowl track record of SEC true freshmen is better than fans might think.

Last year, true freshmen Jacob Eason of Georgia and Jalen Hurts of Alabama both won their first bowl games, beating TCU and Washington, respectively. South Carolina’s Jake Bentley lost to USF in the Birmingham Bowl, but threw for 390 yards in a 46-39 overtime defeat.

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Louisville’s defense is under the direction of former Mississippi State coordinator Peter Sirmon, and that’s a particular challenge for Thompson. Some opponents would enter with limited knowledge of what to expect from a backup quarterback, but with Sirmon’s background, that’s not the case for Louisville.

“When I was there on staff last year when we recruited him, we thought he was a special player and it’s his opportunity to step in,” Sirmon said. “He’s inexperienced, but he’s got a lot of talent and we’ve got a lot of respect for him.”

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