CRAWFORD | Not a fitting end: Jackson throws four interceptions in Louisville loss to Mississippi State
Lamar Jackson's four interceptions hurt the Cardinals in a 31-27 loss to Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (WDRB) – Lamar Jackson’s final pass of the season – and possibly the final pass of his sensational college career -- flew through the air toward the end zone, the University of Louisville football team trailing Mississippi State by four points and no time left in the game.
A crowd of players awaited it in the end zone, but it was Mississippi State’s Johnathan Abram who leaped the highest, got his hands on it and batted it out of bounds to preserve a 31-27 TaxSlayer Bowl victory in EverBank Field.
If it was Jackson’s final play as a Cardinal, it hardly did justice to his Heisman Trophy career. He had thrown four interceptions in the game, which hurt the Cardinals in an effort to beat a Mississippi State team playing with a freshman backup quarterback making his first college start and an interim head coach.
Jackson was outstanding on the ground, carrying 24 times for 158 yards (and that includes 42 yards in sack losses). He passed for 171 yards and two touchdowns. But the four interceptions left him downcast after the game.
“It’s all on me,” Jackson said. “This loss is on me.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Louisville's TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Mississippi State
Reggie Bonnafon, a Louisville native and senior, put his head down as soon as the ball bounced out of bounds and headed toward the locker room after shaking a few Mississippi State hands. In the locker room, he stopped at the entrance and shook the hand of every teammate who walked into the room.
Bobby Petrino got a little emotional after the game mentioning it.
“You hate not to send the seniors out with a win,” he said.
Jackson, swarmed by fans and opponents, shook hands with Mississippi State players, hugged teammates, even stopped right before reaching the tunnel to have his picture taken with two Mississippi State fans who stopped him.
He didn’t fail to deliver the kind of sizzling plays that had made him a national fan favorite. He bolted out on a 75-yard run in the second quarter. He scored on a juking, jumping, spinning 13-yard run and actually crossed the goal line with his back parallel to the ground, like a pole-vaulter, to tie the game at 14 early in the second quarter. Jackson also gained 329 yards against a defense that had given up 302 total yards per game all season, good for 10th in the nation.
But as the game wore on, Mississippi State’s defensive line wore down Louisville’s offensive front, and began to get to Jackson for sacks.
And Jackson, who has been a much-improved passer as a junior, had one of his worst passing days of the season against a defense that ranked No. 13 in the nation against the pass during the regular season, second-highest of any Louisville opponent this season. (Clemson was the first, with the No. 7 passing defense.)
Jackson completed only 13 of 31 passes, and the four interceptions were a career high. He hadn’t thrown an interception since Louisville’s loss at Wake Forest on Oct. 28.
“He wasn’t as accurate on some as he has been,” Petrino said. “On others, we needed to make a better play on the ball.”
Louisville could get nothing going from the running back spot. Malike Williams finished with just 13 yards on five carries, Bonnafon carried seven times for 21 yards.
Jaylen Smith, who couldn’t haul in one of the passes that wound up being intercepted, caught seven passes for 107 yards and a touchdown just before halftime that put Louisville up 21-17 at the break.
A Blanton Creque field goal early late in the third quarter put Louisville up 24-17, but they couldn’t capitalize on any opportunities after that.
The turnovers for Louisville spoiled a spirited defensive effort. After struggling on the first couple of series, Louisville made some defensive adjustments, and then came up with some big takeaways to negate the Cards’ own turnovers. Trumaine Washington had perhaps his best game as a Cardinal, and his second-quarter forced fumble and eventual recovery was one of the best defensive plays any Cardinal made this season.
But in the end, the defense was asked to defend too many short fields, and it wore down on an 11-play, 65-yard touchdown drive late in the game that gave Mississippi State the game-winner.
After the game, Jackson was asked about his future but said he would have to sit down with his family and come to a decision sometime next month.
Petrino said, “We’d love to have him back, but he just needs to sit down and think about the finances of it, and what’s best for him and his development. There have been guys, Carson Palmer, and others, who came back and played in the same system and benefited. . . . We all just want what’s best for him.”
Smith will go through the same decision-making process in the coming days. He said whatever Jackson does, he feels fortunate to have played with him.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Smith said. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime guy, as far as critiquing himself, how he performs, how he carries himself. He’s the greatest show on turf, like they say. Some of the stuff he did here, the hurdle, the spin moves, the game-winning touchdowns. Everything he’s done here has been tremendous. . . . He’s given so much to this team and this program.”
This wasn’t the season it was expected to be, in part because of injury, in part because of some positions that weren’t as good or deep as they were expected to be. But Jackson, almost always, delivered. His final game of the season wasn’t one of his best. But if it is the final game of his career, it shouldn’t tarnish the legacy he has left in Louisville, and it can’t obscure the stiffarm trophy sitting in the Howard Schnellenberger complex.
As he left, Jackson was still stopping and posing for pictures. He didn’t feel like it. He hates losing. But he loves the game.
“I appreciate him playing in this game,” Smith said. “He always gives you everything he has. He’s the best I’ve ever played with.”
And he’s the best a lot of us have ever seen.
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