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Game day: Kentucky at Mississippi State
Click below for more of Kentucky.com’s coverage of the Kentucky-Mississippi State football game.
An early interception returned for a touchdown set the tone for a brutal first half that set Kentucky on track for its second straight loss.
Sawyer Smith’s second throw of the game was picked off by Mississippi State linebacker Willie Gay Jr. — making his first appearance of the season for the Bulldogs after a three-game suspension due to a “violation of team rules” related to academic impropriety — and taken back 52 yards for a touchdown. It was the first score of an eventual 28-13 win for the Bulldogs, but its weight was more crushing than the seven points it put on the board a minute and a half into the bout.
UK played from behind the whole way and managed only three points in the first half, at the end of which they trailed 21-3 and with some uncertainty at the quarterback position looming.
Smith came onto the field out of the break and was evaluated on the sidelines. During Mississippi State’s first offensive possession in the second half, Smith was taken back to the locker room for an X-ray of his right shoulder and was ruled “questionable to return.”
He emerged from the locker room at about the same time Brandin Echols recovered a fumble in Kentucky territory. Backup Walker Wood briefly trotted onto the field before Smith came back and played the remainder of the game.
Head coach Mark Stoops said Smith got hurt at the end of the second quarter following a drive that ended in missed field-goal attempt by Chance Poore.
“He got dinged up with his shoulder, went in, got it X-rayed,” Stoops said. “… (When) he came back, I thought he was done, (but) he came back, gutted it out and really gave us everything he had there in the second half.”
Smith, who was 8-for-26 in the second half, said his arm was “100 percent” and that there was no doubt about him playing after the injury.
Stoops said he believes Smith will be available for UK’s game next weekend at South Carolina.
“You don’t know how it’s gonna respond or what he’s gonna wake up and feel like tomorrow,” Stoops said.
Smith finished 15 of 41 on the night for 232 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass but it wasn’t for a lack of opportunities: Lynn Bowden twice couldn’t grab throws in the end zone and Ahmad Wagner also dropped a would-be TD pass.
“I obviously didn’t get them ready to play today, and that’s totally on me,” said UK co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, who preached a need for consistency in a lot of areas.
“Not just catching balls, not just throwing on time,” Gran continued. “Picking up protections, we weren’t as good there. … I did think, after being challenged, they came out and competed in the second half, but on the road, that’s a tough climb.”
UK was 1-for-12 on third down and 2-for-4 in the red zone. Two of those failed red-zone trips were missed field-goal attempts by Poore, who has only made one of his last four tries.
“If we go back and hit a couple of those red zone plays, it’s a different football game in my opinion,” Gran said. “But would’ves, could’ves and shouldn’t and all that, it doesn’t get it.”
Matt Ruffolo kicked a field goal that pulled UK within 21-13 early in the fourth quarter in part because Poore absorbed some contact on his second missed kick.
“I think it was about time we possibly (should) make a switch anyway, but (Poore) did get banged up,” Stoops said.
Garrett Shrader (125) and Kylin Hill (120) each rushed for more than 100 yards against a Kentucky defense that through three games had allowed 122 rushing yards per game. Hill, the Southeastern Conference’s leading rusher, scored three TDs.
“Both of them made some tough, good runs, just like we thought,” Stoops said. “I think Hill, you could see a great player there with a great desire to make some tough runs. … Coming out of the game, you just have more respect for him.”
Stoops held linebacker Kash Daniel out of the first quarter and removed his captain’s title for Saturday’s game.
Daniel was the subject of controversy last week following UK’s 29-21 loss to Florida when video circulated online that showed him apparently twisting the ankle of Gators quarterback Kyle Trask.
The decision to hold him out was Stoops’ call, not the Southeastern Conference’s.
“Myself and Kash, we have great respect for this game,” Stoops said. “We’re going to honor the game and do things as good as we possibly can. That was 100 percent my call, to not have him be a captain and not have him play to start the game.”
Kentucky at South Carolina
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)