STARKVILLE, Miss. -- After limping into mid-season, Mississippi State wanted a fast start, an easy game, a big Southeastern Conference win.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops warned his team of this.
"They're going to want to play well and get off to a fast start," Stoops said this week. "It's no secret any time you're playing a team that's struggled a little bit like we have, that's what they're going to sit there and say: They want to get off to a fast start and put a dagger in us early."
The Cats never allowed the dagger to come down, keeping it interesting until the final buzzer, but they still came out on the losing end 28-22 at Davis Wade Stadium on Thursday night.
"Frustrated again and disappointed," Stoops said. "We had our opportunities. We didn't make enough plays when we needed to. They did. Give them credit."
A big defensive stand got the Cats the ball back with less than two minutes to go, but not even a combination of quarterbacks could equal enough plays for UK to win it.
Maxwell Smith's final throw on fourth down missed and Kentucky lost another close one on the road.
It was the Bulldogs' fifth straight win over Kentucky (1-6, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) and the first time in this series that one team has won five in a row.
"We're going to look it dead in the face," Stoops said of the loss. "It is what it is. It's not OK. We're all going to coach better. They're going to play better. We're going to address these issues, and we're going to get better and keep on fighting. That's it, end of story."
But it was the middle part of the story that gave UK hope that it would get its first SEC win since the upset of Tennessee in 2011.
After trailing by as many as 13 points midway through the second quarter, the Cats cut the Bulldogs' lead to two points on Jojo Kemp's 14-yard run sparked by the insertion of injured quarterback Jalen Whitlow.
After the game, Whitlow said he was gimpy in warm-ups, but was willing to play. Stoops called on him at halftime and the sophomore was used sparingly.
A series of calls had Stoops looking like a man ready to throw daggers himself, and a trick play to versatile Mississippi State star Dak Prescott gave the Bulldogs their first league win of the year and put them over .500.
Prescott had a big night finishing 23-for-34 for 268 yards and two touchdown passes for State (4-3, 1-2). The completions and yardage were both career highs for the sophomore.
He also ran 16 times for 33 yards in the win.
Jameon Lewis had two touchdowns for the Bulldogs, a 19-yard run on a pitch and a 17-yard score from Prescott. Lewis finished with seven catches for 53 yards and two carries for 22 yards.
Lewis' biggest play of the night came on his 17-yard pass to Prescott to give State some cushion once Kentucky had cut it to two points late in the third quarter.
The two teams traded touchdowns early in the first quarter, with State striking first with a 60-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to Malcolm Johnson after the quarterback eluded Za'Darius Smith, who appeared to have him sacked.
That scramble by Prescott gave Johnson time to slip behind the UK secondary.
No dagger yet.
Kentucky responded with a 51-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Ryan Timmons.
The freshman from Frankfort took the screen pass down the right sideline for the score, his second of the season.
State went up for good on a pitch to Lewis that he took 19 yards for the score with six minutes to go in the first quarter.
Lewis struck again with six minutes to go in the second quarter when he took a 17-yard pass from Prescott to make it 21-7.
Prescott, who came into the game rushing for 457 yards and eight touchdowns, kept that drive alive when he picked up a key fourth down, getting 6 more yards than he needed to on a designed quarterback run.
With less than two minutes to go in the first half, Mississippi State's Nickoe Whitley gave UK a gift, the ball at the Bulldogs' 29-yard line, when he threw punches in the pile and was ejected from the game.
The senior defensive back has three of the Bulldogs' five interceptions on the season.
But Kentucky couldn't capitalize, with Smith throwing two incompletions and Kemp managing just 1 yard on a second-and-10.
Joe Mansour made sure the possession wasn't a waste, kicking a career-long 45-yard field goal to pull the Cats within 11 points, 21-10, with 31 seconds to play.
Mississippi State tried to make the most of what little time it had before the break with Prescott finding Rufus Warren for a 23-yard pass to help set up a field goal attempt.
But Devon Bell's 47-yard attempt didn't have enough behind it.
The Bulldogs, who came into the game outscoring opponents 142-69 in the first half this season, had a 21-10 lead at the half.
Taking away the scoring pass to Timmons, Smith struggled in the first half, completing eight of 19 passes for 48 yards.
For the game, Smith, who is battling shoulder pain still, went 18-for-33 for 160 yards and a touchdown. Raymond Sanders led the UK offense with 86 yards on 15 carries. Kemp added 15 carries for 63 yards and a score.
UK's offense needs to play not only better but smarter, no matter what quarterback is in there.
"We had too many drops again tonight," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I don't know what the final count was. We had some things we just didn't do very smart. We just ran out of bounds on two plays where we should've gotten the first down. ... We skipped some progressions at quarterback, which is not smart. We've gotta do a better job carrying over from the practice field to the game."
State amassed 447 yards of offense to 325 for the Cats. The Bulldogs were 10-for-18 on third down, and UK struggled again in that category, going 4-for-18, but 4-for-5 on fourth-down tries.
A bad Mississippi State snap -- which turned into a safety -- made the second half interesting for the Bulldogs.
The safety pulled UK within nine points and then the injured Whitlow came in to spark the Cats' anemic offense.
The quarterback, who suffered a sprained ankle in the second series versus Alabama and didn't get many reps before this game, looked fine on two runs for 11 yards that helped set up Kemp's 14-yard scoring run.
It was the freshman's first career touchdown, and it got the Cats within two points, 21-19, with 4:19 to go in the second half.
Stoops seemed none too pleased with two calls in a two-minute span that helped set up a big Bulldogs touchdown.
The first call was an offside on a surprise onside kick. Television replays looked close.
"We had the lob set up, and it was perfectly executed," Stoops said. "Somebody on the back side who had absolutely nothing to do with the play was evidently 4 or 6 inches offside. That's the difference. We did not do what we needed to do, and that was disappointing."
Then a pass interference call on Nate Willis gave Mississippi State the ball to set up the trick play, a 17-yard touchdown pass to the quarterback, his second catch of the season for a score.
"It was a well-designed play," Stoops said. "It's one of those things that from the sideline you could see it coming almost in slow motion. They did and got it in, and it's one of the plays that made a difference."
Prescott took that pass from Lewis in the left corner of the end zone with less than four minutes to go in the third quarter.
Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who missed part of the South Carolina game and all of the Alabama game with a strained pectoral muscle, had a big night for the Cats with a season-high 13 tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.