The bye week was supposed to give Kentucky a chance to catch its breath.
But a gut punch in the form of a 45-7 throttling at Mississippi State left the Cats gasping for air on Saturday.
Behind quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs racked up 441 total yards of offense to just 260 for Kentucky.
Against a UK run defense that came into the game No. 10 in the nation, Mississippi State had more rushing yards (282) than Kentucky had total yards.
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“They were the more physical team and generally when you’re that much more physical than your opponent, you’re going to (win) the game,” Coach Mark Stoops said after the loss, which he called “unacceptable.”
Fitzgerald dominated Kentucky, rushing for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior also passed for 155 yards and another touchdown in the rout.
Running back Aeris Williams added 20 carries for 71 yards for the Bulldogs, who have won eight of their last nine over the Cats (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference).
“They really played well,” Stoops continued. “They’re a well-coached football team. They’re very physical and they have an outstanding quarterback. It was a great effort by them and not good enough by us.”
It seemed sort of fitting that Kentucky’s only touchdown of the day at Davis Wade Stadium came on a fumble recovered in the end zone after Stephen Johnson ran 19 yards and coughed it up. Wideout Blake Bone pounced on it, helping UK tie it up 7-7.
That was the last bit of good fortune for Kentucky.
After that, Mississippi State (5-2, 2-2) scored 38 unanswered points.
“It was a really solid day in all three phases against a really good team,” Bulldogs Coach Dan Mullen said. “We were able to take them out of what makes them feel comfortable and put pressure on them.”
Johnson ended the night with 117 yards on 13 of 28 pass attempts and two interceptions, including one that Gerri Green took back 84 yards for the touchdown to make it a 38-7 advantage for Mississippi State.
Fitzgerald found a multitude of ways to wreck Kentucky’s defense on the Bulldogs’ first series, connecting on all five of his passes for 50 yards and then running three times for 22 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown run to put MSU up 7-0 early.
It was the first rushing touchdown given up this season by the UK defense.
Kentucky evened it up in the second quarter on a play that definitely wasn’t in the playbook this season — or any season — the old fumble for a touchdown score.
Johnson was trying to make the best of a broken play and ran the ball 19 yards before fumbling near the end zone. The ball rolled into the end zone and was recovered by Bone for the score.
It was Johnson’s first fumble of the season after six lost fumbles in 2016.
All he could think of as the ball came loose was “Oh, crap,” Johnson said. “Thank goodness Blake Bone’s there to pick it up.”
A 31-yard field goal put the Bulldogs up 10-7 and then they struck again with 1:07 before halftime when Fitzgerald made something big — a 40-yard touchdown — out of a botched play.
That back-breaking play came after UK went for a home-run pass to its tight end on third-and-1, a play Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said they regretted.
“The game got away from us very quickly,” Stoops said. “That’s just more snaps, more effort, more opportunities for them. They drive down and score and the game got away from us right there.”
The Cats’ 17-7 halftime deficit was their largest of the season. Much of it came courtesy of Fitzgerald, who threw for 96 yards and ran for 73 more, including the two for scores.
It went from bad to worse in the second half when the Bulldogs opened the half with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up nearly eight minutes of clock and ended in Fitzgerald finding Jordan Thomas for a 10-yard score.
“Our guys really cranked it up at halftime and did the things they needed to do to win a game,” Mullen said. “They put together a huge drive to start the second half.”
Keytaon Thompson, a freshman quarterback who came in to relieve Fitzgerald, added two rushing touchdowns of his own, first a 9-yarder to make it 31-7 and another from 40 yards to round out the scoring.
From here, Kentucky goes back to work with Tennessee coming to Lexington next week. Some things are going to have to change between now and then, UK’s players said.
“We’ve been here before,” said Benny Snell, who was held to just 18 yards. “We can bounce back like we did before, the last time. We’ve just got to pick ourselves back up and get back to what we were doing.”
The Cats’ quarterback said something similar.
“We can’t take a step back and be like the old Kentucky,” Johnson said. “We gotta be like the new Kentucky where we just fight through games, fight through the week, fight through situations like this.”
Tennessee at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)