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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky wore black uniforms for the first time. Kentucky successfully faked a punt for the first time this season and picked up a first down on its opening series. The Wildcats forced two turnovers deep in Mississippi State territory.
And the bottom line? More of the same.
Mississippi State overcame its early mistakes with a physical defense and at times an overpowering offense that wore out Kentucky 28-16 here Saturday night.
The Wildcats are 3-5 after losing for the fifth time in six games Ã¢â‚¬â€ and 0-4 in Southeastern Conference play where they have been outscored 165-36.
All the pregame hype about the black uniforms didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t help. The WildcatsÃ¢â‚¬Ë†still could not make enough plays on offense even when Danny Trevathan, who had a monster game (17 tackles, one interception) forced a fumble at the State 20 and Ridge Wilson forced another at the State 18. Each time on fourth down, coach Joker Phillips elected to take the field goal. Either heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s that conservative or he knows his offense canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be trusted to pick up a first down on a key play. Take your pick.
Mississippi State was 0-4 in SEC play coming into the game, but by halftime the Bulldogs had 271 yards and 21 points despite alternating quarterbacks. The Bulldogs had also knocked starting quarterback Morgan Newton out with ankle and shoulder injuries and punished backup Maxwell Smith on almost every play. Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve taken hits before, but not like that,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Smith.
But if there is a silver lining in a loss, it was Smith. The freshman who was battered around in relief efforts against LSU and South Carolina, played with remarkable poise. He was 26-for-33 passing for 174 yards and led three impressive second-half drives. By comparison, Newton had 23 completions for 194 yards in UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s last four games.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I hate to say this, but he has as much arm strength as anybody IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve coached,Ã¢â‚¬Â UKÃ¢â‚¬Ë†offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, who coached Peyton Manning at Tennessee, said.
Phillips readily admitted Smith played himself into a chance to compete for a starting spot if Newton is healthy enough to play next week.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He played outstanding. He took some big hits, picked himself up off the ground and came back in and made other big throws. I am proud of him,Ã¢â‚¬Â Phillips said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He is one of those guys who is a freshman and went in there and competed.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Trailing 28-9 and faced with a fourth and sixth at the State 19-yard line to open the fourth quarter, Phillips finally chose not to kick a field goal Ã¢â‚¬â€ and got a first down on a diving catch by Brian Adams at the 8. Two plays later, Jonathan George powered over on a 4-yard run to make it 28-16.
Smith took a huge shot on UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s final drive that got to the Mississippi State 8 before he overthrew LaRod King in the end zone. But just the toughness he showed to stay in the game along with the poise he had Ã¢â‚¬â€ he was sacked three times Ã¢â‚¬â€ and the way he got the ball out of his hands made the offense look much, much better.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We are comfortable with him in the game,Ã¢â‚¬Â UK center Matt Smith said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t worry about that.Ã¢â‚¬Â
But UK didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t win because it couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t put the ball in the end zone in the red zone and gave up three 80-yard touchdown drives and one 65-yard drive. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 305 yards on four drives and more than offset the three turnovers UKÃ¢â‚¬Ë†forced.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It was feast or famine, especially in the first half,Ã¢â‚¬Â UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You just canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t give up 21 first-half points on long drives like we did knowing our offense has had to fight for every point it can get. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s on us.Ã¢â‚¬Â
And it left Phillips pondering why even with a 3-0 edge in turnovers Ã¢â‚¬â€ UK was 6-0 under him when winning the turnover battle Ã¢â‚¬â€ that the Cats lost.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Defensively when you have three turnovers created and no turnovers offensively that usually equals a win,Ã¢â‚¬Â Phillips said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“But itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s simple. We gave up too many big plays. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard for people to drive 80 yards on anyone, and we gave up three of them.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Offensively, we had chance for short fields with the turnovers the defense gave us and we only got six points. We have got to find some way to put the ball in the end zone.Ã¢â‚¬Â
HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s right, but at least based on what happened here Saturday night, putting the ball back in SmithÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hands for the next game against Mississippi could certainly enhance the chances of that happening and UKÃ¢â‚¬Ë†maybe winning a SEC game.