STARKVILLE, Miss. — Close did not provide comfort.
Not for Kentucky. Not this time.
Not even close.
"We fought again, but we're not here for some consolation prize or anything," quarterback Maxwell Smith said after UK's 28-22 defeat at Mississippi State on Thursday night.
"We want to win games. We're not here to say we played well or whatever. We just want to win."
The fact that UK came back from a big deficit again on the road and made a game of it late, seemed to leave players and coaches more frustrated.
"You know, it gets old," quarterback Jalen Whitlow said when asked if the Cats were encouraged or discouraged by being so close in several games. "Gets old. So, you know, it gets old."
Time and again, UK players saw what their new coaches had been harping on all season: how slim the margin for error is and how everyone needs to play well to eke out a win, especially a win on the road in the Southeastern Conference.
The margin on Thursday night was "4 or 6 inches" on one offside call on a surprise onside kick that Javess Blue recovered. It looked like it might have been the momentum moment that could alter a season that's started 1-5 and winless in the league.
"That was a very crucial swing in the game, we had a lot of momentum going, but it's unfortunate it didn't happen," Smith said. "But that's not the only reason why we lost."
No, there were many.
The margin on Thursday night was the shoestring a Bulldogs defender latched onto to stop Raymond Sanders when he appeared to be breaking loose on fourth down for the go-ahead score late in the game
"That was a tough one," Sanders said later. "I should've broke it, helped my team out. That was a tough one right there."
Or the seconds that felt like hours for Coach Mark Stoops and one of his senior defensive leaders as they watched helplessly a throw-back, trick play to State quarterback Dak Prescott develop across the field. It would give the Bulldogs just enough cushion.
"It was really nothing I could do; just sit back and watch it, see what was going to happen, hope he was going to drop it or somebody else would play it," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said of Prescott's 17-yard touchdown catch. "We were supposed to have somebody in the flat on that play. There was really nothing I could do but sit there and gaze and hope something would happen."
It's been a familiar helpless kind of feeling for Williamson as Kentucky tries to rebuild. The senior sees his final season slowly drawing to a close. UK must win each of its next five games to have a shot at a bowl game.
"The young guys, I guess it doesn't hit them as hard because they've got more games than me," Williamson said. "I know it's my last year, so it really means a whole lot to get a win, and it hurts when you've got a team down like that, on the ropes in an away game.
"It's tough, and it's going to take a couple days to get over that one."
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown said the younger players are going to see it on film and keep improving. "The older guys are the ones that have to stay the course," he said.
One of the younger players, Jojo Kemp said the season isn't over.
The proof is in how close UK has gotten, he argued.
"We're gonna get over the hump," he said. "You can tell. I don't know if you guys can tell — this program is changing around, and I'm glad to be a part of it. I don't have no regrets. I'm glad about the choice I have made to come here. We're just gonna keep fighting, and this program's gonna be changed eventually."
The coach on the opposing sideline, who has won five straight over the Cats, sees the changes.
"I want to give Kentucky a lot of credit," State Coach Dan Mullen said. "Mark Stoops has done a great job with that squad. You can see that in their kids with their demeanor, their attitude and how they play."
'A little bit of everything'
Whitlow, who sprained his ankle against Alabama a little more than a week before, was asked by Stoops at halftime if he would be able to play if the offense needed him.
"I told him that we needed him to go and needed him to step up and play with his ankle hurting," Stoops said after the game. "He said he was ready; he wanted to do it. So he went in and gave us a little bit.
"You know, it's a fine line. He was banged up for a week and a half and didn't get a lot of reps. His ankle was bothering him, and it hurt us. It affected us."
The still-healing ankle on the Cats' running quarterback was tweaked again on the series where he helped UK score. It clearly limited him as he ran for a key third down on the Cats' final drive.
"I was in a little pain, but you know," Whitlow said. "First play I didn't really feel it, because I guess adrenaline. But it kind of kicked in a little bit. I kind of tried to move on it. I felt it a little bit. Yeah, it's all right."
His teammates were happy to have him out there, and Whitlow said he expected to be ready to go against Alabama State next Saturday.
"We knew he was in a lot of pain throughout the whole week," Sanders said. "He had a tough week. But he gave us what he got. He came in and fought on his hurt ankle. We appreciate it. We appreciate what he did for us."
Smith has been battling shoulder discomfort and struggled at times during the Mississippi State game, missing some throws he'd been making in practice, he said.
Injuries, issues or anything else, UK has to fix some things in its passing game, offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.
"I can talk all I want, but our passing game's gotta be better," he said. "We've got to complete balls down the field and we're not doing that. Until we do that, we're going to struggle."
UK's 325 yards of total offense were the Cats' most this season against an SEC opponent, and the 160 rushing yards were the most versus an SEC foe, but UK's head coach said a lot needs to improve.
UK's woes are "a little bit of everything," but Stoops said he expects Smith to make those throws when they're there, and the sophomore didn't always deliver.
Smith was not alone.
"Everybody needs to play better," he said. "We need to protect better. We need to get open, and he needs to throw it better."
Dupree shinesdespite pain
Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree had a season-high 13 tackles in the loss despite nursing a sprained pectoral muscle, which hurts each time he moves his upper torso.
The pec pain was just one of many for the junior after the loss.
"I'm all hurt," he said. "My arm. Pec is hurt again. ... My wrist hurt. I'm really banged up. I'll be all right, though."
UK had eight tackles for loss in the defeat, with two apiece for Dupree and cornerback Fred Tiller, which was a season high.
Alabama State at Kentucky
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.