(STARKVILLE, MISS.) – Mississippi State was a bully.
Mississippi State was the big kid playing football with the little kids; nobody could much lay a hand on him, much less bring him down. Forget about waiting for the other big kids to get out of school and help put an end to this madness; it lasted the full 60.
The Bulldogs shut the gates at Davis-Wade Stadium Saturday afternoon and laid a butt-kicking on Kentucky unlike any they’ve had in a long, long time. Rich Brooks used to call such debacles a “complete systems breakdown.” Watching from the safety of his Oregon retirement villa, he must have recognized the signs. They were easy to see.
No offense? Check. The Wildcats ran only 59 plays – a scant seven of them runs by Benny Snell, allowed only 18 yards. He’s a marked man now in college football and the Cats didn’t have enough skill, size or technique up front to help him.
No defense? Check. Kentucky couldn’t stop MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, a lumberjack in shoulder pads who chopped down would-be tacklers when he ran the ball and stood in the pocket like a mighty oak when he threw. He was Lorenzen-esque, delivering the football with prospective sackers draped around his waist and ankles.
No special teams? Check (a small one). Only once were the Wildcats able to take an MSU kickoff (there were eight) and start beyond the 25-yard-line, despite the shifty speed of burgeoning return man Lynn Bowden.
Standing on the sidelines, assessing the carnage, senior receiver Garrett Johnson had a nauseating sense of deja Blue: “This,” he said to himself, “is Old Kentucky.”
Johnson would know. He pulled on his first game-day jersey in 2014, the season that saw Kentucky win five of its first six, only to lose its final six and watch a bowl bid slide off the plate, into the sink and down the drain. It included scores such as 63-31 (Georgia), 50-16 (Tennessee) and, wouldn’t you know, 45-31 (there’s Mississippi State again).
Those days seemed to be gone – at least for the time being. The Bulldogs brought them roaring back although Mark Stoops forever more will kick himself about the closing moments of the first half (once again), when the fabric of the game took on a permanent maroon hue.
State had just ground out a 78-yard drive with a field goal, the UK defense shutting the door at the MSU 13. There were a few ticks more than three minutes left and Stoops knew his D was tired and gasping for air.
“We fought to get to 10-7 and we knew that we were hanging on,” he said. “It was time to get out of that half, and it was imperative that we got a first down at that time.”
Stephen Johnson’s pass down the left sideline to tight end Greg Hart was batted away and Wildcats punted it back. Their defense managed to force the Bulldogs to a fourth-and-one call at the UK 40; Fitzgerald called his own number and, after finding nothing between the tackles, skirted left end and, at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, outraced everyone into the end zone.
Momentum: shifted. Game: virtually over; State’s clock-gobbling 13-play, 75-yard drive that opened the third period the first of four second-half scores for which the Wildcats had no answer. They could barely speak. They were too tired.
On his post-game radio show, Stoops said, “I kicked myself in hindsight” after throwing deep on a crucial third down, when a short run play might have kept the drive alive, pinning the MSU offense to its own sideline. In the media room, he said, “If I had it over again, I would absolutely run the ball. I knew it was critical, but I also played to win the game. I thought we had a shot, and we had it set up.”
Instead, the gates swung open and the big, bad Bulldogs poured through.
Stoops needn’t kick himself. While the storyline of the game certainly changed after Kentucky’s failed gambit, it certainly wasn’t the cause of such an ugly loss.
Mississippi State hung a “Sold” sign on the real estate where offensive and defensive linemen set up shop. The owned both scrimmage lines. The Bulldogs seemed to get three yards of push on every run play, which is why they finished with 282 rushing yards.
The UK O-line is still trying to find the right mix. Redshirt freshman Drake Jackson made his first career start, which means the Wildcats have started seven different offensive line combinations in as many games. Left tackle Landon Young is hurting with a bruised hip, so the Tennessee game could bring number eight.
Kentucky had an extra week to prepare and it didn’t matter. Now the Wildcats go back to work for the normal amount of time, trying to forget about a loss that was abnormal by what was becoming a new standard of Wildcat football. But it had a familiar, bitter taste to it – one that Garrett Johnson remembered in the Starkville twilight.