Rich Brooks couldn’t do it.
Joker Phillips couldn’t do it.
Mark Stoops hasn’t done it.
In exasperating fashion, all three of Kentucky’s most recent head football coaches haven’t been able to beat one particular Southeastern Conference coach.
Who might this legendary figure be? Nick Saban? Les Miles? Steve Spurrier? Gus Malzahn? Mark Richt? Which opponent has provided the highest level of frustration for UK coaches in their continuing efforts to build and sustain a successful football program?
That would be Dan Mullen, now in his eighth year as the head man at Mississippi State, who carries a perfect 7-0 record against the Cats to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.
In fact, before MSU plucked the former Florida offensive coordinator off Urban Meyer’s staff, Kentucky owned a 21-15 series lead over its permanent SEC West Division rival. No more. State’s up 22-21. Mullen is the reason.
After winning at Auburn 21-14 and handling Louisiana-Monroe 35-13, Brooks’ 4-3 Cats welcomed the first-year head coach to Lexington on Oct. 31, 2009. By game’s end MSU running back Anthony Dixon had rushed for a school-record 252 yards and State had walked off with a 31-24 upset win. And the start of a trend.
Brooks’ successor had no better luck. Phillips went 0-3 against Mullen, swept by a combined score of 79-47. The Cats lost by a touchdown (24-17) in 2010, by 12 points (28-16) in 2011 and then by 13 (27-14) in 2012.
Stoops has fared no better. As an 11-point underdog, his first Kentucky team put a Thursday night scare into State in Starkville before falling 28-22 to the Bulldogs. Stoops’ second team produced a representative effort against then unbeaten and No. 1-ranked MSU, with its Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Dak Prescott, before falling 45-31 at CWS.
Last year, however, the wheels came off. At the end of the first quarter, Kentucky led 10-7. By halftime, State was out in front 28-13. By the final cowbell clang, Prescott had thrown for 348 yards and rushed for a season-high 117 in a 42-16 Mississippi State romp.
(Whatever happened to that Prescott guy, anyway?)
Another frustrating fact: Only once in the past seven years — that being Mullen’s first season at MSU — has Kentucky even led the Bulldogs at halftime.
Not that the rest of the SEC is doing something Kentucky can’t do. The 44-year-old Mullen enjoys a five-game winning streak over the SEC East and is 14-4 against the division overall. His teams own a 7-2 road record against East foes.
Overall, the graduate of Pennsylvania’s Ursinus College is 57-39 at Mississippi State with a 27-32 conference mark. His teams have earned the school’s only No. 1 ranking in football and have been to six consecutive bowl games, including a 51-28 win over North Carolina State in last season’s Belk Bowl.
When you face adversity, it tests your character but can really pull a team together. Hopefully that happens for us on the practice field this week.
Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen
This season has been a struggle, however. Blowing a 17-0 halftime lead, State was shocked 21-20 by South Alabama (a 28-point underdog) in the season opener when kicker Westin Graves missed a 28-yard field goal with six seconds remaining.
After beating South Carolina 27-14, the Bulldogs trailed LSU 23-3 at the half before losing 23-20. After beating UMass 47-35 at Gillette Stadium, the Bulldogs trailed Auburn 35-0 at the half before losing 38-14.
Last Friday, Mullen’s men traveled to Provo, Utah, and led BYU 14-7 at the break, then failed to score in the second half as the host Cougars forced overtime. BYU eventually won 28-21 in two overtimes.
At 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the league, Mullen is in danger of suffering his first losing season since his first year in Starkville, when the Bulldogs finished 5-7.
“I see guys learning to play hard every single week. I see guys make some great plays and then some bad plays,” Mullen said Monday. “When you face adversity, it tests your character but can really pull a team together. Hopefully that happens for us on the practice field this week.”
Kentucky fans hope this will be the year their Cats can get the better of a Mullen-coached Mississippi State. If not now, when?
Mississippi State coaches against Kentucky since 1970