STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI — Pittsburgh scored on the “Philly Special” with time running out… Eastern Michigan blocked a punt, scooped and scored with 11 seconds left… UCLA came from 49-17 down to win, 67-63…
So many incredible things happened in college football Saturday. A Kentucky victory in Starkville was not one of them.
With all due respect to the Bulldogs, it was the Wildcats who beat the Wildcats. For the second consecutive week, Kentucky made too many mistakes against a quality opponent and managed a fourth-quarter stab at success, only to be turned away.
And for the second straight game, the culprits were the same: Place-kicking, defensive secondary, turnovers and miscues in the passing game.
One of the many warts in the Florida loss was Chance Poore’s late miss of a field goal that might have won the game. Against MSU, he missed two, including a last-second kick in the first half that would have given the Wildcats some much-needed momentum heading into the locker room.
Poore later would be injured on his second misfire by a Bulldog player who plowed into him. He had to get medical attention for an injured groin muscle but later gave coaches the thumbs up, signifying he was good to go.
Still, later in the game Mark Stoops turned to backup Matt Ruffalo, who nailed his first college field goal try. On his post-game radio show, Stoops indicated he’ll throw open the kicking competition again.
State quarterback Garrett Shrader. a true freshman making his first start, riddled the UK secondary, finishing 17-of-22 for 180 yards. In fairness, Shrader had plenty of time to get comfy and look for receivers.
When the UK defensive front did manage to put pressure on him, Shrader often broke free, extended the play and picked up big chunks of yardage with his arm or feet, rushing for a net total of 125 yards.
Just as the Cats harmed themselves against the Gators by giving the ball away, they buried themselves early. Sawyer Smith’s first pass of the day went to MSU linebacker Willie Gay, who picked it and turned it into six.
And then there was Lynn Bowden. By the end of the day he had racked up more than 200 all-purpose yards. But he also dropped a pair of potential TD passes, including a perfectly-placed bomb thrown by Smith. Ahmad Wagner couldn’t haul in a TD pass as well.
It all added up to the same result: an SEC loss in a contest that could have, and possibly should have been won.
“Mississippi State is always physical and this place is rockin’,” Stoops said. “You just have to come in here and play well. And we didn’t do that.”
Like last year’s game at Tennessee (which followed the disappointing loss to Georgia in what amounted to the battle for the SEC East), the Wildcats didn’t respond well from the start.
“We came out flat,” said running back A.J. Rose, who rushed for 105 yards. Rose opened the game by gashing the Bulldog defense with runs of eight and 10 yards. But then came the Smith interception that went for a State touchdown, and the game plan tweaks began.
His team down 21-3 at recess, Stoops let his team have it.
“I challenged them at halftime,” he said. “It felt very messy in that first half – not very disciplined, not very tough. Not good. And they did respond.”
It worked, to a point. Kentucky shut out the Mississippi State offense for the next 28 minutes. The Cats forced a Shrader fumble on MSU’s first drive of the third quarter and turned it into a TD drive capped by a 2-yard run by Kavosiey Smoke.
Kentucky forced another MSU punt, took over and went 72 yards in nine plays. But that drive ended in the missed field goal that saw Poore go down with the injury.
UK forced one more punt and drove to the State 11 but settled for the Ruffalo field goal, making it 21-13.
Despite their horrid play in the first half, the Wildcats with 4:39 left had put themselves in a position to possibly send the game into overtime. All they needed was one more stop to have a chance. But they got in their own way once again.
On a crucial third-and-four play on the MSU 31, the Cats let Shrader get through the line. He didn’t stop running for 49 yards. The Bulldogs plowed their way to the game-clinching TD and began to celebrate their fifth straight home-field win over Kentucky.
“It starts with me, “ Stoops said. “I have to have them more prepared and ready to play. And they have to challenge themselves, start looking at themselves, individually, in what areas they can improve, and then try to have an influence on somebody else and go from there.”
Where they go is Columbia, South Carolina, this coming Saturday. The Wildcats have beaten USC five straight times and they’re capable of beating the Gamecocks again – IF they don’t beat themselves.