STARKVILLE, Miss. — If you want to sum up Kentucky's 24-17 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday night, you could just go back and rehash the Ole Miss game. Or Auburn. Or Georgia.
The Cats continued with the same script that has followed them during this puzzling season: Start off slow, turn the ball over, dig a hole, fight back, fall short.
The UK defense allowed Mississippi State to score on three of its first four drives and build a 17-7 first-half lead. Kentucky eventually tied the game but was done in by four turnovers, the last a Mike Hartline interception at the MSU 1-yard line as the Cats were trying to tie the game in the final minute.
Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips has given his team kudos all year for the fight they've shown in overcoming deficits, but even he admitted that is getting old.
"I don't want to be known as a team that falls behind and continues to fight and gets themselves back in the game, fights to the end and ends up coming up short," Phillips said. "I want to be known as a football team that fought for 60 minutes, and we haven't done that yet."
Now at 4-5 overall and 1-5 in the SEC, Kentucky will have to win two of its final three games to have a chance at keeping alive its streak of four consecutive bowl games.
"I don't understand it," senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said. "We're tired of being known as the team that always fights back. We need to go into halftime leading. You can say all you want about us fighting, but at the end of the day we're losing. There's no one excited, you don't hear the fight song. As a senior, it's getting old."
Kentucky looked like it might have a chance to force overtime, as the Cats drove to the MSU 20-yard line with 37 seconds remaining. On fourth-and-10, the play called for Hartline to go to Chris Matthews in the end zone, but Matthews, who was benched in the first quarter for disciplinary reasons, broke the route off, which gave Johnthan Banks an easy interception at the MSU 1.
Phillips and Hartline said Matthews botched the play call.
"There was one word in our call that one guy didn't get," Phillips said.
"Chris wasn't supposed to stop," Hartline said. "It was supposed to be all verticals to give us a chance to throw a touchdown. It was called in the huddle. I don't know if he didn't hear it or what happened. It's unfortunate. You can't have things like that happen."
It wasn't Hartline's best evening, either. He completed 23 of 41 passes for 258 yards and two TDs but also threw three interceptions. In addition to the one that clinched the game for MSU, Hartline also threw an interception in the end zone in the second quarter on a jump ball intended for Matthews.
Phillips and Hartline credited State's defense, which sacked Hartline a season-high four times and had him running for his life all night.
"Things were happening a lot faster tonight for Mike," Phillips said. "They were giving us some things with their blitz packages. He didn't play as sharp as he had been, but Mike Hartline gave us a chance to win."
"They had a great defensive scheme," Hartline said. "They did a great job. I told their players and their coaches, being an older guy and having seen a lot of things, they did a great job of confusing me."
UK got off to its typical inauspicious start, going three-and-out on its first possession, and State took a 3-0 lead on a 33-yard Derek DePasquale field goal at 10:49.
The Bulldogs extended it to 10-0 at 5:37, as Vick Ballard burst up the middle untouched on a third-and-5 play, taking it 54 yards for a score.
UK finally showed some life on its third possession, as Hartline took advantage of an MSU blitz and found Randall Cobb over the middle for a 48-yard catch-and-run TD to make it 10-7.
The momentum was short-lived, however. The UK defense had no early answers for Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf, who continually took shotgun snaps and bulled his way through the line and into the Wildcat secondary. That set up a Relf play-action pass that froze the Cats and resulted in an easy 21-yard Arceto Clark touchdown to put the Bulldogs ahead 17-7 with 9:38 left in the second.
Ballard carried 14 times for 103 yards, and Relf added 79 on 16 carries as State outrushed UK 214-89.
"That's just them winning the physical battle," Phillips said.
Despite all that, Kentucky went into halftime trailing just 17-10 when Craig McIntosh drilled a 43-yarder as time expired in the second quarter.
UK committed its third turnover when Raymond Sanders fumbled on the Cats' first possession of the second half. In their five losses, the Cats have turned it over 14 times compared with zero times in its four wins.
"That speaks volumes," Phillips said. "We're way too careless with the football, and we've got to create turnovers. Little things are keeping us from showing what type of football team we really have."
Now the Cats must find some answers to salvage the season.
"I really don't know, I don't think any of us do," Cobb said. "This is by far the best team I've been on since I've been at UK, and we're not showing it. That's what's so frustrating, that we're such a good team, and we have a losing record."