Story published: Sunday, October 30, 2005
Mississippi State isn't the kind of team to inspire a tear-down-the-goal-post moment at Commonwealth Stadium.
But when you're Kentucky, you don't have a whole lot of room to be picky.
The Wildcats weren't dominating by any stretch of the imagination, but Rich Brooks' team was able to do something they haven't done all season: make game-winning plays.
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The defense came up with key stops, and an offense led by running backs Rafael Little and Arliss Beach did just enough to allow the Cats to grind out a 13-7 win over the Bulldogs last night in front of an announced crowd of 55,163.
The win ended a four-game losing streak for UK (2-5, 1-3), which earned its first Southeastern Conference victory of the season.
"It's been a long time," said sophomore linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who had a team-high 11 tackles, including a fumble recovery and a sack. "We had a nasty taste in our mouth from all the losing."
Kentucky would build a 13-0 lead in the third quarter but couldn't exhale until State quarterback Mike Henig's fourth-down pass intended for Jerious Norwood fell incomplete at midfield with 1:33 left in the game.
"I'm just happy that the players get to go home and enjoy a victory,"
Brooks said. "This was the closest to 60 minutes we've played all year long."
It seemed as if the Bulldogs, who were the only other winless SEC team besides Kentucky, would be just what the doctor ordered for the Cats.
Led by Little and Beach, UK controlled the tempo the entire first half.
Little finished with 114 yards on 24 carries while Beach turned in his third straight solid outing with 81 yards on 14 carries. UK struck first on Taylor Begley's 35-yard field goal late in the first quarter, and Little added an 8-yard TD run on UK's next drive.
State seemed to forget that it had one of the SEC's best running backs in Jerious Norwood, a guy who had run for more than 100 yards in each of his last two games against Kentucky. MSU threw 20 first-half passes while Norwood had seven carries. The Bulldogs completed eight of those first-half throws, and starting quarterback Omarr Conner was benched after misfiring on five of his first six passes.
But despite picking up just 99 yards of first-half offense, State went into intermission with a manageable 10-0 deficit.
State finally went to its running game in the third quarter, as Norwood and Brandon Thornton helped drive the Bulldogs to the UK 4-yard line on their first series of the half. But Henig then fumbled the center exchange, and Woodyard recovered at the 4. Begley would then tack on a 33-yard field goal with 7:53 left in the third.
The Bulldogs went right back to the ground on their next possession, and Norwood ripped off an 18-yard gain to the Kentucky 24 before Thornton scampered in untouched from 19 yards out to trim UK's lead to 13-7 with 4:50 left in the third. Norwood finished with 121 yards on 20 carries.
Then that fumbling bugaboo that has haunted the Cats the past two games re-emerged. Woodson hit Jacob Tamme for seven yards on third-and-5 to the MSU 29, but Beach coughed it up on the next play. The ball bounced several yards backward, and Bulldogs defensive back Jeremie Johnson recovered at the State 48.
The Wildcats defense came through with a much-needed hold, however, as freshman Myron Pryor sacked Henig for a 9-yard loss on third-and-seven.
"We had several chances to put the game away, and while we didn't do that, the defense just kept coming up big," Brooks said.
Kentucky would then go three-and-out, but it got a big boost when punter Tim Masthay pinned the Bulldogs back at their own 1 with a 51-yarder.
UK was able to hold on in large part because of field position. Little returned six punts for 89 yards in addition to his 116 rushing yards and 44 yards receiving. Masthay, a true freshman who's been inconsistent, put five punts inside the 20.
Mississippi State last got into scoring position with 7:55 left, but kicker Adam Carlson missed a 26-yard field-goal attempt that would have brought the Bulldogs to within three.
Defensive end B. Jay Parsons deflected a Henig third-and-eight pass from the Bulldogs 14 on MSU's next drive. State took over one last time from its 6 with 3:01 left and appeared to be onto something when Henig hit Will Prosser for a 20-yard pass on fourth-and-15 from the MSU 26. But UK kept the Bulldogs from getting past midfield.
"It seemed like our mistakes would take the opportunity to win away from us, but we delivered tonight," Brooks said. "I'm just proud of the players the way they battled through it. Several times, it looked like we could cave, but instead, we fought back and made plays to turn the thing back in our favor."
The Bulldogs fell to 2-6 overall and are now one of two SEC teams (Arkansas is the other) without a conference win. But don't expect that factoid to taint last night's win in Brooks' eyes.
"Mississippi State isn't chopped liver," Brooks said. "They are a decent football team that has good athletes."
And after noting that State had lost to SEC powers Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU, Brooks said, "Now you can add Kentucky to that list, too."
* Senior defensive back Antoine Huffman was named Homecoming king while Frankfort native Amanda Mills was named Homecoming queen.
* Sophomore receiver Keenan Burton returned to the lineup last night after missing four games with a broken foot. Burton caught three passes for 38 yards. He had a key 28-yard catch in the fourth quarter that gave UK good field position as the Bulldogs were hoping for a game-winning drive.
"Just having Keenan back out there was a real boost," Brooks said. "He's not 100 percent, but he made one real huge play on the bootleg."
* Several Cats, including quarterback Andre Woodson and starting guard Michael Aitcheson, battled through flu bugs last night. Woodson finished 13-for-27 passing for 141 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
* Kentucky saw a couple of starters leave the game with knee injuries: left tackle Fatu Turituri left in the first half, while true freshman Braxton Kelly left in the second half.
* Mississippi State Coach Sylvester Croom had a less-than-flattering assessment of his team's effort after the game.
"I thought (Kentucky) played with more intensity and wanted to win the game more than we did. I thought our effort, the way we came out in the first half, was absolutely pathetic. ... This is the first time I've been embarrassed.
"The bottom line is we have some guys that winning is not important to. We have a lot of guys that want to win, a lot of our young players that want to win, but we have too many that we have to play right now because of the situation we're in. I'm not going to call out names, but I know who they are, and I won't ever forget."