Spread: Mississippi State -4.5 (O/U 63.5)
How to Watch / Listen: 4:00 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN
Louisville and Mississippi State last met in the 2017 TaxSlayer Bowl, making the Music City Bowl the first time the Cards have faced a prior bowl opponent since moving to the ACC in 2014. The Cardinals and Bulldogs fought a closely contested game, with Louisville holding a 21-17 halftime lead. But taking over for starter Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State quarterback Keytaon Thompson ran in for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 3:39 left in the game.
Lamar Jackson had 329 total yards (171 pass, 158 rush) with three total touchdowns (two pass, one rush), but otherwise struggled with four interceptions and being sacked six times. Mark McLaurin picked off the Heisman winner three times, including the final one coming with 2:34 left in the fourth quarter, as Mississippi State took a 31-27 win over Louisville.
Mississippi State leads the all-time series 3-2.
Meet the 2019 Mississippi State Bulldogs
It took until the 11th hour — literally and figuratively — for Mississippi State to get that elusive sixth win for bowl eligibility, but here we stand. The Bulldogs started the season strong with a 3-1 record, but dropped four straight games after beating Kentucky to plummet to 3-5. After beating Arkansas and Abilene Christian, the Bulldogs narrowly beat Ole Miss at home in the regular-season finale to clinch bowl eligibility. Though the Egg Bowl didn’t end without some controversy; Ole Miss scored a late touchdown, but after the Rebels were hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty following the score, they missed the pushed-back PAT kick that would’ve sent the game to overtime.
Mississippi State enters the Music City Bowl with a 6-6 record.
Key Offensive Players: RB Kylin Hill, QB Tommy Stevens
Like Louisville, Mississippi State is a team that has leaned heavily on their running game with a bell cow back and a mobile quarterback. Running back Kylin Hill led the SEC this season with 1,347 yards, ten touchdowns and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Hill is a strong back that can break tackles at the first level, has great lower body strength and can work into the second level consistently. In all six wins this season, Hill has rushed for over 120 yards.
Another thing that helps Hill out in the running game is the offensive line. Mississippi State ranks among the best in the FBS in terms of run blocking, ranking sixth in line yards (3.00), 18th in standard line yards (2.8), and second in passing down line yards (3.71). If they can get their running game going in the same way that Clemson and Kentucky were able to do against the Cardinals, Louisville could be in some trouble.
The Bulldogs have also used freshman quarterback Garrett Shrader often in the running game, as he ran for 587 yards and six touchdowns. But reports surfaced on Thursday that Shrader would miss the Music City Bowl after suffering an injury during an altercation with a teammate. With Shrader out, that puts grad transfer Tommy Stevens back into the starting lineup. Stevens was the starter at the beginning of the year, and has previously worked with head coach Joe Moorhead when the two were at Penn State. Stevens has completed 59.3% of his passes and rushed for 310 yards in 2019, and in the last three games played (Arkansas, Alabama, Abilene Christian), has rushed for at least 74 yards in each of those games. As far as getting production from the quarterback without Shrader, Mississippi State should feel good about Stevens in his final collegiate game.
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Mississippi State get creative and use him on a trick play. Stevens has played wide receiver before at Penn State and scored a couple times, so there is a small chance for a trick play to catch Louisville off guard.
Key Defensive Players: LB Erroll Thompson, LB Willie Gay, Jr.
Mississippi State has felt the effects of missing some elite defensive playmakers that they had in 2017 and 2018. The Bulldogs not only had to replace Dan Mullen and Todd Grantham when they left for Florida, they also had to replace studs on defense that included Montez Sweat, Jeffrey Simmons and Johnathan Abram, all whom went in the first round of the NFL Draft.
They do, however, have a very solid linebacker group that should challenge Louisville’s ability to run their inside / outside zone plays they’re fond of. Erroll Thompson is the leader of the group in tackles (84), and leads a talented linebacker group that is really athletic in the open field. Thompson, alongside Willie Gay, Jr. and Leo Lewis, could pose some issues for a Louisville offense that will have to start life without offensive tackle Mekhi Becton.
Willie Gay, Jr. (no relation to Louisville’s William Gay) is another talented linebacker that the Bulldogs have at their disposal. Gay has only played in four games this year due to various reasons, but he has a pick-six and 2.5 tackles for loss in his limited work this season.
Life after Mekhi Becton
For Louisville, the core focus will be on the offensive line, who will now get a head start on 2020 by having to replace All-American left tackle Mekhi Becton. The junior declared for the NFL Draft after the end of the regular season and chose to skip the bowl game, positioning himself as a potential first-round or day two pick.
The man tasked with replacing Becton at the most important position on the line? Adonis Boone, who was the starter for the NC State game when Becton sat out with an injury. Louisville did post a season-low in rushing yards (77) and yards per carry (1.97) against the Wolfpack, but did score enough with five passing touchdowns in a 34-20 win to secure their own bowl eligibility.
But Mississippi State’s run defense hasn’t been great by any stretch. They’ve allowed 4.33 yards per carry and have only held one FBS opponent to under 100 yards rushing (surprisingly, that one team is #1 LSU). Whoever can establish their will at the line of scrimmage when Louisville’s offense is on the field should go a long way towards winning the Music City Bowl.
Will Louisville be able to hit explosive passes against Mississippi State?
If there is one stat that should make Louisville fans feel confident about a win, it’s that Mississippi State’s pass defense has been suspect at times. The Bulldogs have average numbers in terms of completion percentage (60.2%) and yards per game (241.3), but sit at 115th in yards per attempt (8.4). In their last five losses, Mississippi State allowed opponents to complete over 70% of their passes and average nine yards per attempt, including 15.0 by Auburn and 11.9 by Tennessee in back-to-back weeks. Ole Miss and Southern Miss also averaged over nine yards per attempt against their intrastate foe.
Given that, if Boone and company can protect Cunningham, the quarterback should have an opportunity to hit downfield throws that he has been solid with most of the season. Also helping Louisville’s cause is that Mississippi State cornerback Cameron Dantzler is also choosing to skip the bowl game, putting two true freshmen (Martin Emerson, Jr. and Jarrian Jones) in line for a heavy workload against a veteran, talented Louisville receiving corps.
Can Louisville contain Kylin Hill and force Mississippi State into third-and-long situations?
Not sitting out the bowl game, though, is Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill. Hill has also declared for the NFL Draft, but is opting to play in the bowl game for a chance to elevate his draft stock. He’s also 44 yards away from breaking the single-season school record for rushing yards, and should be able to get it on Monday.
But the bottom line is that for Louisville’s defense, they will need to focus on containing the run game and forcing Mississippi State into passing downs. The Bulldogs haven’t had an explosive passing game all season, having yet to have a 250-yard passing game. They’ve also averaged 7.3 yards per attempt, allowed 27 sacks in their limited passing volume (they also haven’t thrown over 30 passes in any game this season), and their passing game has struggled at times with accuracy. If they can get stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, that could allow for a chance to get off the field and give Louisville chances to take advantage of a defense that has also struggled with big plays at times.
If there is a guy on Mississippi State’s offense who can break off a big pass play, it’s Deddrick Thomas. Thomas is the team leader in yards (390) and receptions (27), and has the speed to challenge most of Louisville’s back seven on third-and-long situations.