On the Commonwealth Stadium sideline, Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson II was engaged in a heated internal debate.
Could his nerves handle watching Austin MacGinnis try a 51-yard field goal with three seconds left and UK trailing Mississippi State 38-37 or not?
“I was extremely nervous,” Johnson II said.
UK freshman running back Benny Snell was calling on heavenly intervention for MacGinnis.
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“I was praying, ‘God, please; God, please; God, please,’” Snell said.
Kentucky senior wide-out Ryan Timmons was drawing on his shared past with MacGinnis, all the times he’d seen the kicker boom simulated “game-winners” in UK late-game situation drills.
“I was definitely going to watch,” Timmons said.
The stakes were about as high for Kentucky as they could get.
Not only was UK’s chance to snap a seven-game losing skid to Mississippi State on the line, it’s possible the UK season — maybe even the Mark Stoops coaching era — now all depended on the right leg of the 5-foot-10, 180-pound place-kicker from Wedowee, Ala.
In a crowd of 50,414, every mind was racing.
“When you are a kicker, you can’t think,” MacGinnis said. “You just have to be totally in the moment. Zen.”
So, UK’s Blake Best snapped the ball, Tristan Yeomans placed it down and MacGinnis’ right foot addressed the kick.
“When I saw it going down the middle,” MacGinnis said later, “I had a feeling it was going in.”
In a moment that defied Kentucky’s often star-crossed football history, MacGinnis boomed a 51-yard field goal on the game’s final play to give Kentucky a 40-38 victory over Mississippi State.
It was the Wildcats (4-3, 3-2 SEC) first victory over a Dan Mullen-coached MSU team in eight tries. It came at the end of a game that the Wildcats dominated statistically (outgained 554-362) yet were on the verge of losing due to some back-breaking turnovers.
In other words, MacGinnis was not only trying a 51-yard field goal under game-winning pressure. He was trying to stare down UK football history.
As Mississippi State drove for the touchdown that put the Bulldogs ahead 38-37, MacGinnis was on the UK sideline engaged in a positive-thinking exercise.
MacGinnis told UK punter Grant McKinniss, “I’m about to kick a game-winner.” He told some Kentucky football managers “I’m about to kick a game-winner.”
Earlier in the game, MacGinnis had already made field goals of 46, 32 and 32 yards. However, a 28-yarder that be banged off the right upright on Kentucky’s first drive of the game now hung over the outcome.
“I jabbed onto my toe and didn’t have a flat jab step,” MacGinnis said of the miss.
After Nick Fitzgerald’s 7-yard pass to Fred Ross put MSU (2-5, 1-3) up 38-37 with 1:09 left, the ‘oh no, here we go again feeling’ filled Commonwealth.
Yet not, apparently, the UK sideline. Star running back Boom Williams sought out MacGinnis.
“Boom said, ‘We’re going to put you in field-goal range. We’ve got faith in you. We believe in you,’” MacGinnis said.
As a freshman two seasons ago, MacGinnis enjoyed a stellar season. He made 21 of 27 field goals. He set a Kentucky school record with a 54-yarder. He was the consensus first-team All-SEC place-kicker.
Plagued by a lingering hamstring problem, the kicker’s sophomore year was a struggle.
Now, his junior year was headed for a career-defining moment.
Taking over at its own 21 with 1:02 left, UK did not get into field-goal position until Stephen Johnson II hit Jeff Badet with an 18-yard pass to the MSU 33. Badet had dropped to the turf so the clock stopped with three seconds left.
Now, it was up to MacGinnis.
As he took the field, just to add a little unseen drama, MacGinnis said the calf in his kicking leg was cramping as he approached the game-winning field-goal try.
Still, he got the ball in the air, “I knew it was good,” he said. “I was a little afraid it might hit the cross bar. But I thought I had it.”
He did, setting off a delirious reaction for the team in Kentucky, uh, anthracite.
As the joyous Wildcats rushed toward their place-kicking hero, MacGinnis says both his calves were cramping.
“I was just trying to stay up, not get on the bottom of a dog pile,” MacGinnis said. “You can get hurt that way.”
Now, if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like for a kicker to come through for a team under the most excruciating pressure, the Kentucky Wildcats now have someone you can ask.
“It’s joy,” Austin MacGinnis says, “pure joy.”