STARKVILLE, Miss. — Saturday was a day to forget for the Kentucky football team. Mississippi State handed Kentucky its most lopsided defeat in more than a year when the Bulldogs blitzed the Wildcats 45-7 on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium.
Here’s how we graded the performance:
Kentucky had a regular-season record of 13 consecutive games with 23 or more points. That streak was snapped Saturday with the Wildcats’ 7-point showing. To make matters worse, that lone touchdown came on a fumble recovery in the end zone.
It’s been a breakout year for Stephen Johnson, but he wasn’t sharp on Saturday. The UK quarterback was 13 of 28 passing for 117 yards. He threw 2 interceptions, the second of which came on a rather inconsequential pick-6. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran dialed up several deep balls, but Johnson missed on all of them.
Johnson did lead Kentucky in rushing with 54 yards on six attempts, but that’s about the only ground game to speak of. Sophomore running back Benny Snell had the least productive day of his career, rushing seven times for 18 yards. The fault doesn’t lie squarely on the backs. Kentucky’s offensive line was pushed around by a more physical Mississippi State defensive line.
For all of the inefficiencies, Mark Stoops said the game changed when Kentucky failed to convert a third-and-1 with 3 minutes left in the first half. Rather than run the ball, Gran thought the Cats could catch Mississippi State off guard with a play-action pass. Johnson underthrew the pass and Kentucky had to punt.
Mississippi State capitalized and padded its lead to 17-7 just before the half.
“The game got away from us very quickly,” Stoops said. “That’s just more snaps, more effort, more opportunities for them.”
The play call would’ve been praised had the pass been completed, but Gran blamed himself after the game.
Kentucky entered Saturday ranked 10th in the country in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (97). But, as we discussed before the game, Kentucky hadn’t faced a rushing attack like Mississippi State’s. It showed.
Mississippi State barreled through Kentucky’s defense with little resistance. Mississippi State came in averaging 262 yards per game on the ground, and the Bulldogs eclipsed that Saturday with 282 rushing yards. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald rushed for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns, one of the scores coming on a 40-yard run on fourth-and-1.
The Bulldogs averaged 6 yards a pop on the ground, but Fitzgerald did what he wanted through the air, completing 18 of 26 passes. He only threw for 155 yards and 1 touchdown, but the numbers could’ve looked a lot worse for Kentucky’s secondary. Fitzgerald overthrew what would’ve been an easy touchdown and the Cats were spared further embarrassment by a few drops.
From the defensive line to the secondary, and everywhere in between, Kentucky’s defense couldn’t match up with Mississippi State.
Special teams: C-minus
Not even the special teams, a weekly strength this season, were up to par.
Matt Panton punted 7 times, averaging 45.1 yards per kick. That number was inflated by a meaningless 67-yard punt late in the game, but Panton did pin Mississippi State inside its 20-yard line three times.
There were no glaring miscues in Kentucky’s return game, but freshman Lynn Bowden made a few questionable calls on kick returns. He fielded the ball in the end zone on two kickoffs and failed to reach the 20-yard line.
Austin MacGinnis didn’t attempt a field goal, but he left one kickoff short that set up Mississippi State in great field position.
Kentucky wasn’t favored to win this game, but there were countless ways the Wildcats could’ve lost to Mississippi State that would’ve avoided embarrassment. The result Saturday wasn’t a respectable loss. Kentucky had an extra week to prepare for Mississippi State and it still lost by 38.
“Everybody’s manhood gets challenged,” Stoops said after the game. “There’s going to be some frustrations and some things, but there’s nothing we can’t mange.”