The average Kentucky football fan could be forgiven if they had a feeling of dread coming into their matchup with Mississippi State Saturday night in Lexington.
The Cats' defense had been torched in their last six quarters (a loss at Auburn and at home to Ole Miss), surrendering over 600 yards through the air and six touchdowns, costing the Cats opportunities to open this season at least 1-1.
Coming into the Big Supermarket (AKA Kroger Field) was the pass-happy Air Raid offense of former UK offensive coordinator Mike Leach which hung 44 points on LSU in their season opener.
But in Week Two the Dawgs (1-2) were limited to 14 points in an upset loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks, casting the dye that the Air Raid could be solved. If a defense just made plays, tackled well, and got a couple of turnovers, then they stood a chance of winning.
To UK’s credit, the defense hit upon that formula to help the Cats to end the losing streak and enter the win column for the first time this season with a 24-2 victory behind five interceptions, one for a touchdown. For UK, now 1-2, it couldn’t come at a better time.
With archrival Tennessee waiting in Knoxville next Saturday and traveling in two weeks to Tuscaloosa to face the monolith that is Alabama, the Cats needed some good fortune, good vibes, just something good to happen. They got it from a variety of sources.
The Cats forced two KJ Costello interceptions in the first half, one by senior defensive end Josh Paschal that he returned to inside the Mississippi State five-yard line, leading to a Chris Rodriguez touchdown run and another pick by UK linebacker Jamin Davis in the end zone to end a Bulldog scoring threat late in the half. In its lone scoring drive, UK quarterback Terry Wilson hit tight end Keaton Upshaw for a 12-yard score.
However, the second half might have been the low point for the Kentucky offense this season. The Cats were unable to get their SEC-leading rushing attack going and at the same time could not complete a pass of consequence, a recipe for disaster most nights in the gauntlet known as the SEC.
But the much-maligned and left for dead Cats defense would not let the game get away from Kentucky, forcing four more interceptions from MSU, one each by Jamar “Boogie” Watson, Kelvin Joseph, and D’Eryk Jackson and a Pick Six from Jordan Wright to seal the win.
Let’s wrap up the night, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Team Records and Series Information
Kentucky is 1-2 and Mississippi State is 1-2.
The series now is tied 24-24 and UK has won one in a row.
Kentucky leads the series 15-9 in games played in Lexington, including three straight.
This is the first time UK has had three consecutive wins against Miss. State in Lexington since 1958-1990 (five straight).
This was Kentucky’s largest margin of victory against Miss. State since Oct. 25, 2003 when UK won by 25 points.
This was the first time Kentucky has defeated an SEC opponent in consecutive home games by at least 21 points since 1996-98 vs. Vanderbilt.
This is the first time Kentucky has recorded a SEC home win by at least 21 points in three consecutive seasons since 1949-1952.
Next for Kentucky: The Wildcats play Saturday at Tennessee. Game time is noon and it will be televised by the SEC Network or ESPN.
Today was Coach Mark Stoops’ 91st game as the Kentucky head coach, passing Jerry Claiborne for the second-most in school history. Fran Curci has the record with 100 games coached.
This gives Mark Stoops a school-record 33 wins at Kroger Field/Commonwealth Stadium, surpassing Jerry Claiborne’s mark of 32.
Stoops also tied Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most home wins in school history.
Kentucky had six interceptions today, the second-most in school history.
UK also had six vs. Xavier on Sept. 25, 1948.
The school record is seven vs. Florida on Sept. 11, 1993.
Kentucky allowed just two points, the lowest in a game since a shutout of Miami (Ohio) to open the 2009 season. UK won that game 42-0.
This is the first time Kentucky has held an SEC opponent without an offensive score since a 25-0 shutout of Vanderbilt on Nov. 16, 1996.
Kentucky now is 15-4 over its past 19 games at Kroger Field.
· UK’s game captain was quarterback Terry Wilson.
Wilson now is 13-5 as UK’s starting quarterback.
He rushed for 50 yards on 13 carries and now has 812 career rushing yards.
Wilson had a 51-yard rush to set up a UK touchdown. It was the longest rush of his career.
Wilson threw his second touchdown pass of the season, a 12-yard strike to Keaton Upshaw.
· Sophomore running back Chris Rodriguez rushed seven times for 38 yards and a score.
It was his third rushing TD of the season and ninth career.
· Senior running back A.J. Rose rushed eight times for 22 yards.
Rose now has 1,475 career rushing yards, 23rd place in school history.
· Senior WR Josh Ali paced the Wildcats receiving with two catches for 22 yards.
Sophomore TE Keaton Upshaw had a 12-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, his first of the season and second of his career.
Sophomore TE Brenden Bates made his first collegiate catch, a 14-yarder in the third quarter.
Sophomore LB Jamin Davis wore uniform No. 22 today in honor of teammate Chris Oats, who is dealing with a serious medical condition.
Davis intercepted a pass in the end zone on the final play of the first half, the third pickoff of his career.
Davis recorded a career-high 11 tackles.
· Junior defensive end Josh Paschal made his first career interception in the second quarter and returned it 76 yards to the two-yard line, setting up Chris Rodriguez’ two-year TD.
It is the longest interception return by a Kentucky player since Josh Forrest on Nov. 28, 2015 against UofL, which was 81.
It was Kentucky’s longest interception return at home against an SEC opponent in Kroger Field history (since 1973).
· Sophomore cornerback Kelvin Joseph had his first career interception in the third quarter.
Senior linebacker Boogie Watson made his first career interception in the fourth quarter.
Watson added a sack in the fourth quarter, his second of the season, and also had two quarterback hurries.
Watson now has 15.5 career sacks. He needs two more to tie Jeremy Jarmon for fifth on the UK career list.·
Junior linebacker Jordan Wright had a pick-six in the fourth quarter to give UK a 21-2 lead.
It was Wright’s first career interception.
It was his second career defensive touchdown. His first came on a fumble return on the final play of the Belk Bowl victory over Virginia Tech last season.
It was UK’s first interception return for a touchdown since Mike Edwards vs. Middle Tennessee in 2018.
Wright added 2.0 tackles for loss and a sack among his six total tackles. He also had a pass breakup.
· It is the first time that a UK player recorded a interception and a sack in the same game against an SEC opponent since Denzil Ware on Nov. 11, 2017 at Vanderbilt.
Junior linebacker DeAndre Square recorded nine tackles.
Senior punter Max Duffy punted eight time for an average of 44.9 yards with a 57-yard long.
Duffy downed three inside the Miss. State 20-yard line, including two inside the 5-yard line.
Duffy came up with a critical play on a free kick after the Bulldogs recorded a safety, booming a 75-yard kick with only an 11-yard return – in essence, a net kickoff of 64 yards.
· True freshmen to make their collegiate debut included: DL Josaih Hayes, DL Octavious Oxendine, DB Andru Phillips, DL Justin Rogers, DL Tre’Vonn Rybka.
Freshman linebacker D’Eryk Jackson snagged his first career interception on the final play of the game.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and at A Sea of Blue, KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and HarlanCountySports.com.