JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Did that really happen? Did Mississippi State freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson just stare down a former Heisman Trophy winner in his first career start? Did a skinny kid from New Orleans just pick up the Bulldogs offense and carry it on his back across the end zone for the game-winning score? Did the school’s quarterback of the future steal the show from Lamar Jackson?
Yes, yes and yes. He did all of that. And then some.
Thompson finished the day with 147 rushing yards and 3 scores, and he added an 11-of-20 passing performance for 127 yards.
But it was his resolve, his willing the Bulldogs to a 31-27 victory that set Thompson’s debut apart. It was Dak Prescott-like.
Thompson, sharing the field with the nation’s most electric quarterback, matched Jackson play-for-play, stride-for-stride Saturday. Thompson connected on his first 5 passes and rushed for 65 yards on 8 carries in the first quarter. He also guided Mississippi State with a steady hand, one that built leads of 7-0 and 14-7 before Jackson gave Louisville a lead at the end of the first half. By halftime, Thompson had completed 9 of his 11 passes for 99 yards and rushed for 83 yards and a score.
Thompson’s fast start continued into the second half, as Bulldogs fans saw a quarterback that was explosive yet calm, poised yet electric.
In the fourth quarter, he showed that resolve. After a number of drops by his wide receivers, Thompson took over. He rushed 3 times for 19 yards on Mississippi State’s game-tying drive, including a 2-yard touchdown.
Thompson topped himself later in the quarter. He led the game-winning drive with incredible poise, and dove in from a yard out to give MSU the 31-27 lead.
When Jackson’s last-ditch pass attempt fell to the ground, Thompson slowly stood and pumped his fist. He had his victory.
“He was phenomenal,” said Mississippi State interim coach Greg Knox. “We talked to him about managing the game, and he did just that.”
Thompson was everything he’s been billed to be, though things didn’t always go his way. He watched Reggie Todd fumble inside the red zone after a completion that would have resulted in a first down. He watched from the sideline as senior Gabe Myles muffed a punt that resulted in a turnover. And he watched in disbelief as Todd dropped a perfectly thrown deep ball on third down early in the second half. To that end, Thompson suffered from the same problems Nick Fitzgerald dealt with this season. That included a mediocre wide receiver group that has been upgraded in recruiting. And to his credit, Thompson was sharp and accurate on his end.
His worst throw of the day, an interception midway through the third quarter, was a classic freshman mistake. But it was one of very few.
But ultimately, this day was about the future.
Thompson showed why he was the highest-rated quarterback Dan Mullen ever signed at Mississippi State.
“We didn’t care if we was a freshman. We knew if he ran the ball, he could have some success,” Knox said. “He was everything we needed him to be.”
Thompson gives new Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead an incredible foundation on which to build his version of the Bulldogs. Thompson has the size, speed and skill set to thrive in the SEC. More importantly, he showed on Saturday that he is unflappable as a leader.
Mississippi State had every excuse to lose this game. The Bulldogs entered with a patchwork coaching staff. Its starting quarterback was on crutches. But Thompson would not let the Bulldogs lose. They will remember what Thompson showed, though.
Keytaon Thompson showed that he is the future of Mississippi State football.