By LARRY VAUGHT
Even for Kentucky, this was going to be a tough loss to accept for a lot of reasons.
Kentucky had a 34-24 lead early in the fourth quarter Saturday night and had the ball inside the Mississippi State 10-yard line. A touchdown would push the lead to 41-24 and secure the win.
Instead, quarterback Stephen Johnson fumbled for the eighth time in six games. Mark McLaurin got the loose ball for State and went 81 yards to score. A possible 41-24 lead suddenly was 34-31. But it got worse when State scored on a 7-yard pass with just 1:09 left to take a 38-37 lead.
A game UK had often dominated was slipping away. So was the chance for a bowl bid — the Liberty Bowl had officials at the game — and maybe even coach Mark Stoops’ job.
But perhaps it was only fitting that on the same night the Chicago Cubs reached the World Series, Kentucky had its own miracle when kicker Austin MacGinnis — who had missed a chip shot field goal in the first quarter when it bounced off the right upright — nailed a 51-yard field goal as time expired for a 40-38 win that set off a mini celebration led by Stoops.
“I’ll be the first one to tell you, we’ve come a long way. Last year, even the year before that, it was almost like people would just quit and give up after we were down, but today and the past few weeks we’ve proven everyone wrong. Just fighting, it’s been a dog fight,” said linebacker Jordan Jones, who had 11 tackles.
Johnson said he watches MacGinis make the same type of kick daily in practice. Yet he was nervous.
“My stomach was everywhere. My mind was everywhere. And after, I was filled with joy. I am still in shock. This is a great feeling,” Johnson said.
Freshman running back Benny Snell was overcome with emotion after the game, especially when he went over to his family.
“It was just me crying and my dad saying, ‘It’s ok. You did it.’ I’m just really emotional about this game because I just love this game. Everybody on the team loves it,” Snell said.
“Putting all the pressure on just one guy and him being able to make that play and win the game is just amazing. We just fought so hard and he pulled through. So, I had nothing to do but cry. I was so happy.”
And what about MacGinnis? Well, he was downright giddy after the game as he was surrounded by media members and should have been.
“It felt so good. It felt like relief. It feels so good to get over the hump. We haven’t beaten Mississippi State since I’ve been here, so it felt really good to get the SEC win,” MacGinnis said.
He was not thinking about his early miss.
“You always have to put any kick behind you. Make or miss, it’s always about the next kick. If you’re thinking about the last kick, you don’t give yourself a chance,” he said.
Running back Boom Williams had told MacGinnis before the last drive that the offense would give him a chance to win the game, and he delivered.
Stoops hugged MacGinnis on the field.
“He was telling me he was proud of me, that everyone had faith in me and they trusted me. He was glad I made the kick,” MacGinnis laughed and said.
It was the third straight end of game loss for Mississippi State. Still, defensive back McLaurin admired what UK and MacGinnis did to win.
“To be honest the kicker made a great kick. So, there was nothing we could do about it. It hurts knowing we fought so hard and we knew we came back, but for that 51-yard kick… It hurt watching that,” McLaurin said.
Stoops never hesitated to call on MacGinnis after Jeff Badet made a reception and got down at the 33-yard line with 3 seconds to play.
“I was good with it either way because I felt like our team, our players played their hearts out; I know our coaches coached their hearts out. And I have a lot of confidence, I’ve been telling you guys that I felt like Austin was getting real close to being an elite kicker, getting back to like he is. He did miss one early but I have a lot of confidence in him,” Stoops said.
The coach didn’t remember all he said to MacGinnis on the field.
“I gave him a hug and probably told him I loved him,” Stoops laughed and said. “He’s a wonderful kid and he works hard, and he’s healthy, and our team has a lot of confidence in him. He just told the team that he was just proud to be a part of it and get it for them.”