John Clay

UK football finds a dramatic way to stay on winning track

Just when you thought Kentucky found a way to lose Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium, the Cats found a way to win.

And maybe, just maybe, the Cats found their way to a bowl game.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, of course. Austin MacGinnis’ booming 51-yard field goal as time expired gave the host Cats a thrilling 40-38 win over Mississippi State, their first win over MSU Coach Dan Mullen and their fourth win of the season. UK is still two away from bowl eligibility.

“Just like we drew it up,” joked UK Coach Mark Stoops. “That’s how it works.”

Not to be too dramatic, but you could make the case that the Cats also saved their season given the razor-thin margin of error Stoops’ team appears to have on its path to a sought-after postseason game.

In fact, just before quarterback Stephen Johnson found Jeff Badet over the middle for an 18-yard gain that set up MacGinnis’ game-winner, you figured this was one of those games where the Cats did everything but win the football game.

Kentucky outgained Mississippi State 554-362. It was balanced on offense, passing for 292 yards and rushing for 262. It completed a touchdown pass off a double-reverse trick play in which Johnson, lined up at receiver, threw for the score. It scored on a pick-six when safety Marcus McWilson returned a Mississippi State pass 45 yards for a touchdown.

It also tried to give the game right back to Mullen, who entered with a perfect 7-0 record against the Cats. With UK up 34-24 and driving toward putting the game away, Johnson (again) fumbled away the football and (again) the opponent scooped-and-scored, this time with State’s Mark McLaurin returning the loose ball 81 yards for a TD, cutting the host lead to 34-31 with 9:33 remaining.

“We seem to like putting some drama in things,” Stoops said.

Then when the Cats had to settle for a field goal and a 37-31 lead at the 6:52 mark, the UK defense, weakened by injuries, couldn’t find an answer to stop Mississippi State’s long, methodical and eventual scoring drive as the Bulldogs went 77 yards in 14 plays. Fred Ross’ 7-yard grab of Nick Fitzgerald’s pass, plus the extra point, made it 38-37 Bulldogs with 1:09 left.

Yes, snatching defeat away from the jaws of victory and all that. We’d seen it all before. And yet before the ink had dried on another sad story, this one had a different ending.

There were ups-and-downs on the final possession. Third play, the officials missed an obvious horse collar penalty against Mississippi State. Two plays after that, Johnson’s 51-yard bomb went just off the hands of Dorian Baker in the end zone with nine seconds left.

UK made great use of those nine seconds. After that 18-yard pass to Badet to the 33, Stoops called time with three seconds left. On came MacGinnis, whose career-long was 54 yards, but who had missed a 28-yard field goal (hit the right upright) early in the game.

“I had a lot of confidence in him,” Stoops said. “I would have been happy with it either way.”

The kick went the right way, right through the uprights and kept Kentucky moving in the right direction. The Cats have won four of their last five. They’re over .500 in the conference (3-2) on the way to Missouri to play a struggling Mizzou team that lost at home to Middle Tennessee on Saturday.

If Kentucky can pull off the road win at Columbia, with a home game against Austin Peay in November, you can see a way for the Cats to get the six wins necessary for their first bowl trip since 2010. If so, it could all go back to MacGinnis’ long, dramatic, winning kick.

“This gives us the opportunity to take the next step,” Stoops said. “We’ll see what we do with it.”

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