STARKVILLE, Miss. — There is no written rule that says attaining bowl eligibility has to be a thing of beauty.
Along those lines, the Kentucky football team relied on two of the least aesthetically pleasing elements of football, the running game and the kicking game, to post a 14-13 win over host Mississippi State on Saturday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
The Wildcats were outgained 304-274 and looked almost as lethargic in the first half as they did last week in a 63-5 loss at Florida.
But the UK ground game, which had been missing in action most of the season, got a jump-start from freshman quarterback Randall Cobb and senior running back Tony Dixon.
And after being victimized by poor special teams in losses to South Carolina and Florida, the Wildcats converted a pivotal fake punt on their go-ahead drive late in the third quarter, then blocked a potential game-tying extra point early in the fourth.
UK (6-3, 2-3) is now bowl-eligible for the third consecutive year, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Paul "Bear" Bryant pulled it off in the 1949, '50 and '51 seasons.
"It's big for our program," said UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips. "It's a big selling point. It says that we're stable and not a one-hit wonder or a two-hit wonder."
Kentucky ran for just 24 yards on 13 carries in the first half, and went into the locker room down 7-0.
The Wildcats didn't pick up huge chunks on the ground after halftime but did just enough to keep the chains moving.
After a 42-yard kickoff return by Dixon gave UK good field position to start the second half, Cobb marched the Cats 53 yards in nine plays, capped off by his 5-yard scoring run on an option keeper. The key play on the drive came when Cobb picked up 3 yards on third-and-4 to the Bulldogs' 24 and was hit late out of bounds by MSU safety Derek Pegues.
Cobb finished with just 31 yards on 12 carries but helped keep the Bulldogs' defense honest. Cobb and backup Mike Hartline combined for 146 passing yards, and UK's go-ahead touchdown was a 3-yard pass off of play-action from Cobb to Maurice Grinter.
"What helped everything go is that we ran the ball better," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "It's a lot better when you're in second-and-5, second-and-2, second-and-1 than it is when you're second-and-10. I was pleased with the way the line and the backs responded."
Cobb credited the offensive line for the Wildcats' power surge.
"It all started up front," Cobb said. "We had good blocking, and the running backs were hitting the holes and getting us the yards we needed. That made it easier."
UK ran 23 times for 104 yards in the second half and got a big contribution from Dixon, a fifth-year senior who had struggled to get going this season. Dixon said it was the best he's felt since the Georgia game two years ago, when he carried the Wildcats on their game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
With the game tied 7-7, Cobb led UK on a 12-play, 82-yard drive that got a boost when A.J. Nance picked up a first down on a fourth-and-1 carry on a fake punt. UK also benefited from a pass-interference penalty against the Bulldogs and took the lead on Cobb's pass to Grinter with 2:42 left in the third.
In addition to improving its running game, Kentucky shut down Mississippi State on the ground. The Bulldogs had 43 yards on 27 carries, and that allowed the UK front four to pressure MSU quarterback Tyson Lee all afternoon.
"Once we stopped the run, we knew that we'd get a chance to get some hits on the quarterback," said UK senior defensive end Ventrell Jenkins, who had two of the Wildcats' four sacks.
The Cats lost momentum when MSU defensive tackle Cortez McCraney forced Alfonso Smith to fumble and recovered the ball at the UK 31. State got to within one, 14-13, when Arnil Stallworth took a short pass from Lee and juked Trevard Lindley in the open field for a 10-yard score.
But 6-foot-6 freshman Matt Roark blocked Adam Carlson's extra-point attempt, preserving the one-point lead for the Cats with 13:57 remaining.
Kentucky appeared to come up with a tide-turning play when Jeremy Jarmon blocked Blake McAdams' punt, which would have given UK the ball on MSU's half of the field with 10½ minutes left. But the Cats were flagged for offsides, giving State 4th-and-1 at the Kentucky 35. Lee then play-faked and found Brandon McRae for a 5-yard gain and a Bulldogs first down.
Carlson then lined up for a go-ahead field goal from 27 yards, but his kick hit the left upright and bounced straight back, preserving UK's one-point lead with 6:56 left.
"A missed extra point and missed field goal in a close ball game like we were just a part of is unacceptable," MSU Coach Sylvester Croom said. "We make the extra point, things change. We make the field goal, we win the game."
Mississippi State had one final opportunity, but senior cornerback Robbie McAtee picked off Lee at the Bulldogs' 45 with 1:01 remaining to ice the win.
Kentucky will host Georgia next week with a chance to match its regular-season win total from each of the past two seasons.
"There were a lot of things we can build off from this game," Brooks said. "I'm proud of the effort, the guts, the determination and just finding a way to win a game on the road, which is hard in this league. I hope (the players) know we have a chance to do something special, even though we had a major egg-laying last week. This wasn't the prettiest example of football, but it was a pretty nice win."