Thompson's time once again: MSU quarterback ready for another start

MSU quarterback Keytaon Thompson

Staff Writer

There was a calmness to Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead’s voice.

Despite the fact MSU’s new leader, in his first game-week press conference of his Bulldog tenure on Monday, was announcing a shocking season-opening-game suspension for starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, Moorhead uttered the words as nonchalantly as if he was announcing what he had for lunch.

“Nick Fitzgerald will not play this week,” Moorhead said, as reporters looked up from their computers to make sure they heard what they thought they heard.

As Moorhead stated and as has been well-documented by now, Fitzgerald indeed will not begin his senior season on Saturday when the Bulldogs host Stephen F. Austin at 6:30 p.m. at Davis Wade Stadium. Fitzgerald violated team rules back in March and will serve his punishment this weekend. Perhaps lost in the suddenness and unexpectedness of the Fitzgerald news though is that it has provided yet another opportunity for backup Keytaon Thompson to shine in Fitzgerald’s stead, just as he has before. Thompson enters Saturday’s game with full confidence of the MSU coaching staff.

“Anything we would do with Nick, we can do with (Thompson) as well,” Bulldogs offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “We have that luxury and we’re fortunate to.”

Thompson is starting to make a name for himself by more than holding his own in Fitzgerald’s absence. Yes, Fitzgerald is the star. Yes, Fitzgerald is the owner of 11 school records and three Southeastern Conference marks. Anytime Fitzgerald isn’t on the field, it’s a blow to the Bulldogs.

However Thompson has already proven MSU’s offense is still in good hands. 

It started last year in the annual battle against instate rival Ole Miss. Fitzgerald’s ankle was gruesomely broken early in the game. Thompson stepped in and put up 316 yards of total offense – rushing for 121 yards and passing for 195 to nearly lead the Bulldogs to a dramatic comeback win.

About a month later, Thompson got his first career start when he filled in for Fitzgerald in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Thompson responded that day by guiding the Bulldogs to a win over Heisman Trophy-winning signal caller Lamar Jackson and Louisville. 

Moments like that are why no one affiliated with MSU thinks it will skip much of a beat as Fitzgerald sits a game.

“I think the guys have a tremendous belief in Thompson,” Moorhead said. “He had the ability to go into a bowl game with an interim staff and against a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. He brought the team to a great win in the bowl game. One thing we’ve built and fostered is the next-man-in mentality. On top of what Thompson brings as a player, our team has a belief that we will handle prosperity and adversity.”

Like his coach, Thompson’s blood pressure doesn’t seem to rise at the notion Fitzgerald won’t play Saturday. His freshman-year success is a part of that, but so too is his advanced maturity. Thompson only has one season under his belt, but he has been in Starkville for nearly two full years. He began classes at Mississippi State in January of 2017 just a few weeks after winning a high school state championship. Thompson then went through spring practice with the Bulldogs as he geared up for his freshman season.

By now, Thompson doesn’t even consider himself a youngster. The roster declares him a sophomore backup, but mentally, he’s a veteran ready for any role, including an unexpected start. Thompson was given the news he’d be the starter last Friday as game prep for Stephen F. Austin began. He said he took the news in stride.

“I always have the mentality of being just one play away (from playing),” Thompson said. “I just took the news (that I was starting) on Friday and went on with my day and the way I’d normally prepare for a game.
“You always prepare like a starter anyway so I didn’t have to change my approach at all.”

Thompson’s tenure as starter will last just one week. Fitzgerald will be back for MSU’s second game of the season at Kansas State on September 8. 

Until then though, Thompson and the Bulldogs are forced to go over their first speed bump of the 2018 campaign as Fitzgerald sits. Odds are, it won’t be the last time Mississippi State faces trials and tribulations over the course of the season.

“When you’re given adversity like this, you need to bow your back and you get your chin off your chest,” Moorhead said. “You trust that (Thompson is) a good player and we will give him an opportunity to be successful. He’s going to play great in the game.”