STARKVILLE, Mississippi — On the eve of Halloween, needing to come with a clean, sharp effort, the Kentucky Wildcats instead handed out turnovers like they were full-sized candy bars – and not those “fun-sized” monstrosities.
There was nothing fun about the 31-17 beat-down they absorbed at the hands of an MSU team Kentucky dominated last season. In the battle of Wills, Kentucky’s Levis picked the absolute worst time for his worst game as a Wildcat; State’s Rogers picked the perfect time for a near-perfect game.
It was as though State got all the great stuff – Snickers, Reese’s Cups, Milky Ways – and the Wildcats got nothing but circus peanuts and raisins. And it was their own fault.
Levis threw three crippling interceptions, including one where he under-threw a wide open Wan’Dale Robinson, who was two steps past his defender and another three steps from the end zone. Levis’ miscues were part of a rash of errors that saw Kentucky turn it over three times in four plays.
Rogers apparently never met a completion he didn’t like, hitting on an SEC record 92.3 percent of his passes (36-of-39). One more attempt and he would have met the NCAA minimum for a new Division I record.
It all added up to a miserable night for the 12th-ranked team in the country, whose fans had been entertaining notions of a trip to the Sugar Bowl
“They kicked our butts in all areas,” said Mark Stoops, who still hasn’t beaten MSU in Starkville. “You can’t win on the road against a team like this and have four turnovers. You have no shot.”
That fourth turnover was still another fumble by Chris Rodriguez, who put it on the ground twice, the Bulldogs recovering one, turning it into a touchdown. Rodriguez has transformed himself from the SEC’s most feared rusher to a man of mystery, removed from the starting lineup apparently because, according to Stoops, he was “dealing with an issue during week.” Asked by Tom Leach if it was something that could right itself this coming week, Stoops said, simply, “I hope so.”
That was just about the only simple answer for what happened Saturday night. The Wildcats had an extra week to prep for MSU’s Air Raid offense, which they destroyed last season by making six interceptions — picking off Rogers twice as he came off the bench late in the game.
On this night, though, Rogers was razor-sharp with quick passes to the edge of the UK defense, which basically served as long handoffs. The Cats missed so many tackles, the Bulldogs kept the first-down marker moving so quickly that the chain gang might have asked for a breather. MSU had 24 first downs, converting on 7-of-12 third down opportunities.
Ordinarily, if your defense holds the other guys to 94 rushing yards on 35 carries, it’s cause for celebration. To Stoops, it was “aggravating,” because those yards came at crucial times – Dillon Johnson with TD runs of nine and one yards and Jo’Quavious Marks likewise running for 58 yards and a score. “Under 100,” Stoops said, “but if you allow it, it’s not good.”
Thanks to the turnovers, Mississippi State was able run off 74 plays to Kentucky’s paltry 48, with the Dogs keeping the ball 41 minutes to UK’s 19.
So now, heading into the final third of the regular season, the Wildcats apparently have to start over. Their best rusher seems to be dissolving before their eyes; their strong-armed QB likely will disappear from any awards watch list he was on and their defense, which carried the team early in the season, has to find a better way to cover for the losses of some key personnel up front.
Kentucky registered eight tackles-for-loss and two sacks, but it never seemed as though Rogers was in danger when the Wildcats absolutely had to make him uncomfortable. As a result, his receivers had ample time to find open space down field.
Changes may be on the way, Stoops telling reporters, “(We want) to make sure we get the right guys out on the field that play the way we want to play.”
They’d better do it in a hurry, because on the way is that team that dresses up in orange – not as a pumpkin, but as a unit bent on revenge. And the Volunteers are playing their best football right now. Kentucky smashed Tennessee last season. But of course, it did the same to Mississippi State.
Things change, but the Starkville Hex lives on.