No. 18 Mississippi St goes into opener using backup QB

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              FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2018, file photo, Mississippi State quarterback Keytaon Thompson protects the ball during NCAA college football practice in Starkville, Miss. No. 18 Mississippi State will play their opener Saturday, Aug. Sept. 1, against Stephen F. Austin without senior starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who was suspended for the first game because of a "violation of team policy" that happened in March. Thompson will start instead and head coach Joe Moorhead doesn't expect any dropoff in performance. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle, File)
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STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi State’s football program has hit a little adversity early in Joe Moorhead’s tenure.

Now the first-year coach is interested in how the Bulldogs respond.

No. 18 Mississippi State will play Saturday’s opener against Stephen F. Austin without senior starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who was suspended for the first game because of a “violation of team policy” that happened in March .

Sophomore Keytaon Thompson will start instead and Moorhead doesn’t expect any dropoff in performance.

“On top of what Thompson brings as a player, our team has a belief that we will handle prosperity and adversity,” Moorhead said. “When you’re given adversity like this, you need to bow your back, and you get your chin off your chest. You trust that he’s a good player, and we will give him an opportunity to be successful. He’s going to play great in the game.”

Even with Thompson playing instead of Fitzgerald, Mississippi State will be a big favorite. The Bulldogs are coming off a 9-4 season, including a 4-4 mark in the Southeastern Conference, and expect to be even better this year. Stephen F. Austin plays at the FCS-level in the Southland Conference and was 4-7 last season.

Moorhead takes over for Dan Mullen, who coached for nine seasons at Mississippi State before leaving for the Florida job. The 44-year-old Moorhead comes to Starkville after two successful seasons as Penn State’s offensive coordinator and hopes to add his touch to an offense that was good last season.

It’s also the debut for new Mississippi State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who is expected to use four players on the defensive line more than predecessor Todd Grantham, who joined Mullen at Florida.

Here are a few more things to watch when the Bulldogs host Stephen F. Austin:

MORE ON THOMPSON: Mississippi State’s quarterback for Saturday’s game does have some experience. Fitzgerald was hurt early in the Egg Bowl last season so Thompson took over in that game and also started the TaxSlayer Bowl, leading the Bulldogs to a win over Louisville . The game could be an important one for the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Thompson, who is out to prove he’s the definite heir apparent to Fitzgerald after this season.

GO GET HIM: Mississippi State has two of the SEC’s best defensive linemen in Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons. Sweat led the SEC with 10½ sacks last season. Mississippi State was of only five teams in the country that ranked in the top 25 nationally in sacks (36) and sacks allowed (13).

STATE VS THE FCS: Mississippi State hasn’t had much trouble of late against programs from the Football Championship Subdivision. The Bulldogs have won 13 in a row by an average score of 47-12. Stephen F. Austin has never faced a program from the Southeastern Conference.

MOORHEAD’S HEAD COACH HISTORY: This is Joe Moorhead’s first season leading Mississippi State, but it’s not his first go-round as a head coach. Moorhead had a very successful four-year run at Fordham from 2012 to 2015, finishing with a 38-13 record at the FCS level. He also led two upset victories over FBS teams — Army and Temple.

STEPHEN F. AUSTIN IN FLUX: Jeff Byrd was named the interim head coach at Stephen F. Austin in June after former coach Clint Conque was suspended because of an investigation into “violations of university policy.” Conque resigned on Aug. 6. Byrd is a Southaven, Mississippi, native who has spent the past 15 years in a defensive coordinator role at various schools.