UK Football

John Clay: In hanging with No. 1 team, Cats show they are getting close

Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles (14) found some open room to run as the host University of Kentucky lost 31-45 to Mississippi State University football team at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday October 25, 2014 in Lexington, Ky.  Photo by Mark Mahan
Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles (14) found some open room to run as the host University of Kentucky lost 31-45 to Mississippi State University football team at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday October 25, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Mahan Herald-Leader

It was getting late in the third quarter at Commonwealth Stadium and Kentucky trailed the No. 1 team in the country by just seven points and appeared to have Mississippi State's bowling ball of a running back, Josh Robinson, cornered for a loss.

Ah, but the first Wildcat bounced off Robinson. And then the second. Third. Fourth. Fifth. Sixth. We counted eight home defenders that touched the Bulldog back who looks like a real bulldog, all 5 feet, 9 inches, and 215 pounds of him. It could have been more, because maybe we lost count. Oh, Robinson was finally tackled, by the way, after a 22-yard gain.

That was sort of a metaphor for Kentucky football on this sunny October Saturday afternoon that turned into an entertaining night. Mark Stoops' second-year program is making progress and getting close, but the Cats are not to the point where they can wrap up an upset against the nation's No. 1-ranked team. Not yet.

Mississippi State won 45-31, and did so despite the fact UK quarterback Patrick Towles had his best all-around game as a collegian, despite the season-best crowd of 64,791, despite the Cats shaking off the embarrassment of last week's 38-point loss at LSU.

Stat time: Kentucky gained 504 yards and lost, mainly because Mississippi State gained 542, about 500 of which appeared to be yards after contact.

"We got beat by a better football team," said Stoops afterward. "Give Mississippi State credit."

Still, the head coach seemed a little antsy sitting at the postgame press conference, a little frustrated. He arrived quickly, and his answers were a tad shorter than usual. Frustration will do that to a coach. So will a couple of losses in a row.

Plus, Stoops' reputation is built on his acumen as a defensive coach. Saturday might as well have been the famous film clip of the legendary Vince Lombardi barking at his Green Bay Packers defense: "Nobody's tackling. Everybody's grabbing. Just grab, grab, grab."

After five wins in their first six games, the Cats have entered the Big Boy Football stretch of their season. Special teams errors erased any chance of being in the game at LSU last Saturday. This Saturday was different.

Mississippi State has some big boys — big boys that are hard to bring to the ground, aka "Dakman and Robinson."

Quarterback Dak Prescott, the Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, threw for 216 yards, ran for 88 and accounted for three touchdowns. Robinson gained 198 yards on 23 carries and besides that amazing rubber-ball type run, burst into the great wide open for a 72-yard score.

"We had a desperation call on there," Stoops said later. "They split us. The rest is history."

State Coach Dan Mullen is now 6-0 against Kentucky, but this is by far his best team. Prescott is not just a big, strong quarterback, he's a leader. State's secondary is suspect — if anything knocks the Bulldogs off the top spot, it will be pass defense — but the Bulldogs' front seven on defense is tough to crack.

"They got girth and length," said offensive coordinator Neal Brown. "But I'm really proud of our guys. Patrick really competed."

Whatever Dak did, Pat did, and a little bit more. Towles threw for 390 yards. He ran for 76. Best game? "Yes," said Brown. "That was Patrick's best game."

"You watch that team, the plays they're able to make, the players they have, the quarterback and some of the throws he made, runs after catch and stuff like that. They're a very dangerous team," Mullen said afterward. "I wouldn't be surprised to see them have a fantastic rest of the year and land a great bowl game this year."

The Cats are probably a stud run-stopper of a linebacker away from filling that prophecy. After the beatdown at LSU, however, Saturday proved they are getting close enough to play with the No. 1-ranked team in the country, just not close enough yet to take it down.

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