STARKVILLE, Miss. — In what may well have been the pivotal game of Maxwell Smith's Kentucky career, the UK quarterback had a chance to play the hero.
It didn't happen.
Down six points to Mississippi State with 2:02 left in the game, Kentucky took over the ball at its own 42. A UK touchdown drive would almost certainly mean the first Southeastern Conference victory of Mark Stoops' Wildcats head coaching career.
Smith hit Demarco Robinson with a 10-yard pass, connected with Javess Blue on two passes for a total of 14 yards. With some runs mixed in, Smith moved Kentucky into State territory.
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Yet on a fourth-and-7 from the MSU 29 with 21 seconds left, the redshirt sophomore from Granada Hills, Calif., sailed a pass high over the head of a well-covered Alexander Montgomery.
When he did, it meant that for the fifth straight season, Mississippi State (4-3, 1-2 SEC) had beaten Kentucky. This time, it was 28-22 before an announced crowd of 55,102 in Davis Wade Stadium and an ESPN Thursday night national TV audience.
Said Smith: "We just didn't execute tonight."
What Kentucky (1-6, 0-4 SEC) did do was fight. "That was a hard-fought game," MSU Coach Dan Mullen said. "I want to give Kentucky a lot of credit. Mark Stoops has done a great job with that squad. You can see that in their kids with their demeanor, their attitude ..."
For UK's Smith — who just last season seemed poised to pick up the baton passed from Couch to Lorenzen to Woodson and be the next standout Kentucky quarterback — this may have been his last, best chance to re-assert a claim on the Cats starting job.
After an early season filled with alternating UK quarterbacks, Jalen Whitlow appeared to secure the starting QB job with a strong effort at South Carolina two games back. However the dual-threat sophomore was sidelined on the second series of UK's loss to Alabama by an ankle sprain.
That gave Smith another shot, and carried a bit of irony. Injuries ended Smith's 2011 (shoulder) and 2012 (shoulder, ankle) seasons and their after effects may explain why he's not been the same QB in 2013. Against a Mississippi State pass defense that was strafed by both Auburn (339 passing yards) and LSU (340), Smith seemed to have a chance to show that he could still throw the ball like he did when healthy in the first three games last year. Against three teams that went to bowl games, he averaged 322 passing yards.
It didn't happen.
Thursday night, Smith finished 18-for-34 for 160 yards. Fifty-one of those yards came when electric UK freshman Ryan Timmons took an outside screen, made an MSU defender miss and jetted into the end zone for a first-quarter touchdown.
Otherwise, there were too few big plays in the Kentucky passing game. The UK offensive brain trust called plays — 40 runs, what seemed like a kajillion screens — as if it did not have any confidence in its QB throwing the ball downfield.
In the first half, Smith was 9-of-20 for 99 yards and UK trailed 21-10 at halftime. "Early, there was some (defensive) pressure that impacted him," Stoops said of Smith. "He can't let that affect him for the rest of the game. He has to step up, and when he does have time, he has to make big plays."
After Mississippi State gave UK two points with a safety when the Bulldogs whiffed on a punt snap in the Kentucky end zone in the third quarter, Stoops and Wildcats offensive coordinator Neal Brown inserted Whitlow into the game at QB even though the pre-game hope was not to use him.
"I talked to him at half and told him we needed him to go," Stoops said. "We needed him to step up and play with his ankle hurting."
Whitlow led a quick five-play TD drive that got Kentucky within 21-19.
Brown said after the game that Whitlow's bum ankle and limited practice time since the injury meant the QB could not give UK much beyond what he did on the one drive.
So after the scoring drive, Kentucky mostly went back to Smith. In a sense, facing Mississippi State in a moment critical to his career was coming full circle for him. His first extended playing time at Kentucky came as a true freshman against MSU in 2011. In relief of an injured Morgan Newton, Smith completed 26 of 33 passes for 174 yards.
The next week, he made his first college start and led Kentucky to a victory over Mississippi. The former UK coaching staff raved about his "arm talent" and potential.
Amidst the cow-bell clanging cacophony in Starkville on Thursday night, that was the Smith Kentucky needed on that final drive.
Unfortunately for Maxwell Smith, it didn't happen.