By LARRY VAUGHT
Let’s put the talk about Kentucky winning the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division to rest.
Mississippi State routed Kentucky 45-7 Saturday in Starkville to erase any thoughts that UK might be good enough to challenge unbeaten Georgia — or other teams left on the schedule if it plays like it did at Mississippi State.
This was not the way UK wanted to start the second half of the season, especially coming off a bye week. But the Cats (5-2) had no answer for Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s passing or rushing. Fitzgerald ran for 115 yards and two scores and threw for 155 and one score.
The Bulldogs’ defense dominated UK’s offense. Other than two bursts by quarterback Stephen Johnson, UK had NO RUNNING GAME.
In last year’s win over State, Kentucky had 554 yards of total offense. On Saturday, it had 260 total. Johnson was 13 of 28 passing for 117 yards. Running back Benny Snell ran seven times for 18 yards. Kentucky had 115 yards rushing on 29 carries and Johnson had 54 of those yards thanks to two long runs.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops didn’t mince words on the UK Radio Network after the game.
“Not very good in any area. Pretty plain and simple, they outreached us and whipped us in about every phase. Generally speaking the more physical team wins, and they were more physical than us and took care of us,” Stoops said. “You can’t let it linger around. You have look yourself in the mirror starting with coaching. Make no excuses. It is what it is. This is a grown man’s league. We went on the road and get whipped.”
Mississippi State had opened as a 10-point favorite for this game. By Friday the line had moved to 13 points and obviously there was a good reason for that with the way the Bulldogs dominated hapless UK.
Kentucky was in the game only briefly. Johnson had a 23-yard run after a fake to Benny Snell and later executed a 14-yard shovel pass to Snell. On second down at the State 22, the UK quarterback got free along the sideline before getting hit at the 3. He tried to reach the ball toward the end zone, but fumbled.
The ball went into he end zone where UK receiver Blake Bone alertly cradled the ball for a touchdown to tie the game.
This was not the kind of play that usually goes in favor of Kentucky football.
“UK traditionally doesn’t get that kind of break. Embrace it BBN,” Larry Glover of Larry Glover Live tweeted after the score — and was exactly right.
Too bad Kentucky didn’t embrace the good fortune. The Bulldogs used a 33-yard kickoff return to set up a 31-yard field goal to take a 10-7 lead and then on fourth and 1 at the UK 40 late in the first half, Fitzgerald got loose for a 40-yard TD run — the longest run the UK defense has allowed this year.
Linebacker Denzil Ware missed a tackle when Fitzgerald cut back and then safety Darius West could not catch Fitzgerald to give the Bulldogs a 17-7 lead with 1:05 left in the half.
Mississippi State got the ball back before Fitzgerald’s TD when UK threw an incompletion going deep on third-and-one and had to punt.
“When we fought back and it was 10-7, I knew it was not the time to go back again and play defense. I kick myself in hindsight (for throwing the incompletion) on third and one. I really kicked myself. I knew we needed to get out of there. But we missed it and the defense had to defend,” Stoops said.
“We were already hanging on. But the game is different if we had not had to defend again. I just kick myself. We play to win. Miss situations like that it is just one play, but it is hard to explain that is how the game turned.”
The onslaught didn’t end there. State got the ball to start the second half and with UK desperately needing a defensive stop, the Bulldogs overcame a holding penalty to drive 75 yards in 13 plays to score on a 9-yard pass from Fitzgerald to Jace Chrstmann. It took nearly 8 minutes off the clock and put the lead at 24-7 with the 17-0 blitz after UK had tied the score.
After three quarters, State had 362 yards compared to UK’s 184. Fitzgerald had more yards — 155 passing and 113 rushing — than UK had.
With 12:20 to play, backup quarterback Kaytaon Thompson ran through arm tackles for a 9-yard score and 31-7 lead. Later he had a 40-yard scoring run when West could not catch him either. In between came an 84-yard interception return by Gerri Green when Johnson was under big-time pressure. Johnson came into the game with just two interceptions in six games. Green’s pick was State’s second in this game.
So what’s next? Tennessee comes to Lexington off a 45-7 loss at No. 1 Alabama. How bad are the Vols offensively? They have not scored an offensive touchdown this month.
Senior receiver Garrett Johnson, who had five catches for 36 yards Saturday, said on the UK Radio Network that the “old Kentucky” won’t be seen again this year — and better not if UK wants to win again.
“”This won’t happen again. We are not going to dwell on this. Things happen,” Johnson said. “We are players have to step up. We know what it takes. We have seen the good and the bad. We understand the bigger picture and now we have to hold each other accountable.”
Stoops said UK got a lot of players “banged up in a physical game” and he’ll need some new players to play more going forward. The coach wants leaders like Johnson to help the recovery this week.
“We are not alone. A lot of teams have bad days in this league,” Stoops said. “It is not okay to come in here and play like this. You just have to accept it and get ready to play again.”