Lamar Jackson never even considered sitting out the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The 2016 Heisman Trophy said Friday he wanted to play because of teammates, a not-at-all-surprising statement from Louisville’s star quarterback who always defers to those around him while smashing records.
“They sat out throughout the year, they came back in the game trying to help us out, make us come out with victories in big games and they didn’t have to,” Jackson said. “I just felt I owed that to them.”
So Jackson will be the main attraction – as usual – when the Cardinals (8-4) play 24th-ranked Mississippi State (8-4) at EverBank Field on Saturday. The game is expected to be Jackson’s collegiate finale , although he’s keeping his future plans under wraps for now.
“I just want to sit down with my family and make my decision,” he said.
In the meantime, Jackson has more records in his sights.
The Pompano Beach native needs 26 yards rushing and 126 yards passing to join Colin Kaepernick as the only other player in NCAA history to run for 4,000 yards and pass for 9,000 in a career. Jackson also needs 183 yards of offense to break his single-season school record (5,114) set in 2016.
Those seems about as close to a given as possible considering Jackson’s year.
Jackson leads the nation in total offense with 4,932 yards – 3,489 passing and 1,443 rushing – and is on pass to break Atlantic Coast Conference and career records for total yards per game. The two-time ACC Player of the Year finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.
“I don’t know if you slow him down,” said Mississippi State interim coach Greg Knox, filling in for departed Dan Mullen . “You just hope to contain him. He’s going to get his yards.
“It’s like playing Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan was going to get his points every night. You hope to contain him, not let him get out of control, eliminate big plays. He’s a special player.”
Jackson surely wants a better performance than his last bowl game, a 29-9 loss to LSU in last year’s Citrus Bowl.
Jackson completed 10 of 27 passes for 153 yards and ran 26 times for 33 yards, including eight sacks.
The Cardinals limped into that postseason with consecutive losses. They enter this one having won three in a row and averaging 46 points in those games.
“It boosts our ego,” Jackson said. “We ready. We ready to play.”
Mississippi State is a touchdown underdog, mostly because it will be without quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald broke his right ankle in the first quarter of the Egg Bowl last month against in-state rival Mississippi. Freshman Keytaon Thompson will make his first career start.
“He feels confident about what he’s doing,” Knox said. “I think he’s relaxed. Will he be nervous? Yeah, I think he'll be nervous a little bit. But I think after the first series, things will calm down (and) he'll be himself.
“Being himself, he’s a competitor, he’s a player. He’s going to go out, he’s going to perform well. I have no doubt in my mind that kid is going to play. He’s going to play like he’s capable of.”
Aeris Williams ranks sixth in the SEC with 1,019 yards rushing to become the first MSU running back to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season since Josh Robinson in 2014. Williams is now just 47 yards shy of tying Anthony Dixon for 10th place in MSU single-season history.
Not only will Mississippi State be without Fitzgerald, senior receiver Donald Gray will miss his fifth consecutive game because of a groin injury and receiver Keith Mixon won’t play because of an ankle injury.
The Bulldogs will say goodbye to much of their coaching staff after the game. New coach Joe Moorhead is expected to retain only defensive line coach Brian Baker, with everyone else headed for new jobs.
“Whenever a family experiences hard times, it can either break you down or bring you closer,” linebacker Dez Harris said. “I feel like throughout this whole process, we just got closer as a team.”
Teams: Louisville vs. Mississippi State
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Radio: 1580-AM, 96.9 FM