Mississippi State upheaval presents challenges for Louisville

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said preparing to face No. 23 Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday is especially difficult given all the change that has happened in Starkville.

Dan Mullen left for Florida and took several coaches with him. The Bulldogs (8-4) have a new coach, Joe Moorhead, but he is not in charge for the bowl game. Mississippi State will be led by interim coach Greg Knox, but the offense may be different as well because starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is out after having surgery to repair a severely dislocated ankle.

Knox will be calling the plays for freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson, so the Cardinals (8-4) are trying to figure out what exactly they need to prepare for ahead of the game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It will be a little weird or different trying to understand because the play-callers on both sides of the ball have changed,” Petrino said. “We always sit there talking about, ‘That’s what Todd did,’ but he’s not there now.”

Todd is Todd Grantham, Louisville’s former defensive coordinator who served in the same capacity at Mississippi State this season. The Cardinals know the defense the Bulldogs played throughout the regular season because Grantham utilized the same system at both schools, but Grantham left Mississippi State for Florida with Mullen.

Louisville still has an advantage because current Cardinals defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon was at Mississippi State last season.

“I think Coach Sirmon will understand their players and their talents and what they do, and then also Mississippi State will understand what (Sirmon’s) package is and what he did there,” Petrino said. “But these games are about the players.”

Sirmon still will have a tough test even without Fitzgerald in the backfield.

“(Thompson has) handled it well. He’s prepared. He’s going through it,” Knox said of Thompson. “As you watch him perform in practice, he’s getting better and better. That’s coming with the more amount of reps he’s getting every day. He’s getting the full load. There’s no Nick Fitzgerald right now, so he’s getting the full load of it.

“As you watch him develop, he’s getting better and better every day. The more we practice, the better he gets.”

Mississippi State isn’t just its quarterback, though. The Bulldogs rushed for 5.2 yards per carry as Aeris Williams ran for 1,019 yards and four others ran for 200 or more yards. And Louisville will be without two of its top defensive players.

Cardinals preseason All-America defensive back Jaire Alexander announced last week that he would skip the bowl game to begin preparing for the NFL Draft. The draft-eligible junior is expected to be a first- or second-round pick. Pass rusher James Hearns will also not play in the bowl. He is recovering from minor injuries sustained during the season and preparing for the draft as well.

“I like the way we have practiced,” Petrino said. “We’ve had good focus and they have been having fun. Most of the practices have been against each other. We have put in some good extra work on the game plan for Mississippi State. They are a good team, and we have to be ready to play.”

Louisville’s dilemma trying to figure out what to prepare for is ironic because that is what opposing coaches have said about trying to prepare for quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals for years. Jackson doesn’t necessarily know what he is going to do from play to play, so defenses can’t know either.

“A special, special player,” Knox said of Jackson. “Our guys know it, they know of him and they consider it a challenge … a great opportunity for everyone on the defense.”

As far as Jackson goes, he is preparing to play in the game and putting aside all other distractions — including his professional future.

Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, put up even more incredible numbers this season. He passed for 3,489 yards and 25 touchdowns against six interceptions in 2017, and he rushed for 1,443 yards and 17 touchdowns. His completion percentage is up, his interceptions are down, and he is as dangerous of a threat as any player in college football.

Jackson likely won’t be the only excitement during the TaxSlayer Bowl. Bowl games are notorious for trick plays, and Louisville has one of the most creative offensive minds in college football.

“We just want to make sure to run ours before they run theirs,” Petrino said.

As for Mississippi State, Knox smiled widely when asked if there were any plays he had saved over the years,

“We’re going to have some fun,” he said.

Bowl games also are typically won by the team most motivated to be there. The Cardinals played their best football of the season the past three games. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs endured a chaotic past month.

“It has been challenging,” Knox said. “It has been a tough deal, but again, we’re family. Once you have a foundation, (the players) understand what we expect. Whether it’s Coach Mullen standing in front of them, me or Coach Moorhead, it doesn’t matter. They understand what we expect, and we expect them to work hard. They’ve done a great job of it.”