After a year in which the Kentucky Wildcats have flirted with disaster time and again, generally jumping away at the last second, on Saturday night in Starkville, the Wildcats forgot to jump away.
Trailing 10-7 late in the second quarter in Starkville, Kentucky opted to dial up a risky passing play on a third and short. When tight end Greg Hart bobbled the pass, Kentucky punted. A handful of plays later, State QB Nick Fitzgerald raced 40 yards on a 4th-and-1 for a touchdown that stretched the halftime advantage to 17-7.
Kentucky never recovered, getting outscored 28-0 the rest of the way, falling to 5-2 with an embarrassing 45-7 defeat.
Several areas of Kentucky’s team which had been strengths were gashed in the game. UK’s run defense was ranked third in the SEC, but it yielded 282 yards on the ground to the Bulldogs. Fitzgerald, one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the league, finished with 115 yards and a pair of touchdowns on a dozen carries. He was 18 of 26 passing for another 155 yards and a touchdown.
Kentucky’s offense was as rudderless as the defense. Stephen Johnson had a poor day, completing 13 of 28 passes for 117 yards. Johnson threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a late touchdown by State. On the ground, the Cats were equally silent, as the only rusher to break a run of ten or more yards was Johnson, who rushed six times for 54 yards.
Defensively, Mike Edwards led the team in tackles with eleven stops.
UK never sacked Fitzgerald, although they had several opportunities. State converted 12 of 18 third-down opportunities, often reaching the line to gain by a yard or less. Kentucky forced no turnovers, and gave up two themselves.
Indeed, Kentucky may have expended more of the fight in the locker room after the game than on the field. Mark Stoops’ press conference was interrupted by noise from the locker room as assistant coach Vince Marrow held an impromptu discussion of the game in the most profane terms imaginable.
After the game, Stoops singled out the third down call from the end of the first half as a possible turning point. “The game got away from us very quickly,” added Stoops, who called his team’s effort “definitely not acceptable.” It was the most lopsided Kentucky loss since the second game of the 2016 season at Florida, which had the same final score.
Fortunately for Kentucky, their next three games are against 3-4 Tennessee and 3-4 Ole Miss at home, and then a road game at 3-4 Vanderbilt. Kentucky is favored at time of writing by 5.5 against UT, and will likely be favored in the other games as well, particularly with the season-ending loss of Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson.
The Wildcats need a single victory to earn bowl-eligibility for the second consecutive season. A sweep of the next three games would clinch the first winning SEC campaign in 40 years. Despite a general atmosphere of fan panic following the game, Kentucky’s season is very much alive and well. They will, however, have to be a little more adept at dodging disaster than they were Saturday in Starkville.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.