John Clay

Did Kentucky football get exposed in blowout loss at Mississippi State?

Kentucky football had no answer for Nick Fitzgerald

Kentucky outside linebacker Josh Allen and defensive coordinator Matt House talk about Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald after 45-7 loss to Bulldogs.
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Kentucky outside linebacker Josh Allen and defensive coordinator Matt House talk about Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald after 45-7 loss to Bulldogs.

Kentucky got exposed.

That’s the hot take from the Cats’ 45-7 laying of a large egg at Mississippi State on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. You can hear the critics now, the ones biting their tongues. Their postgame reaction: Told you the Cats were not as good as their 5-1 record. Who had they played? Who had they beaten? Kentucky had struggled to put away teams it should have drilled and lost to a team it should have defeated.

Yet not even the wise guys out in Vegas — the ones that made Mississippi State a near two-touchdown favorite — foresaw the severity of the thrashing the Bulldogs administered. Dan Mullen’s team rushed for 282 yards on the way to improving to 5-2 on the season and 2-2 in the SEC. Facing a rushing defense ranked 10th in the country, State had not one but two quarterbacks, first starter Nick Fitzgerald and backup Keytaon Thompson, run for separate 40-yard touchdowns.

To be sure, the Cats were down just 10-7 late in the first half when offensive coordinator Eddie Gran decided to roll the dice on a third-and-1 at his own 27 in hopes of burning Todd Grantham’s overaggressive defense. Didn’t work. Stephen Johnson’s pass to tight end Greg Hart fell incomplete. Kentucky punted. Five snaps later, Mississippi State led 17-7.

“The game got away from us right there,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said.

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Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson (15) was sacked by Mississippi State defensive lineman Montez Sweat (9) and linebacker Dezmond Harris (11) during UK’s 45-7 loss at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

In reality, however, his team never showed up. Coming off a bye week, the Cats seemed off the entire game. Johnson’s passes were either overthrown, underthrown or thrown to a State linebacker. Gerri Green returned one 84 yards for a touchdown. The Kentucky quarterback was picked off as many times Saturday (twice) as he had been in the previous six games.

“We played very poorly on all three sides of the ball,” Johnson afterward said.

So how could this be? How could a team that said it needed the off week to get rested and ready for the season’s second half give such a dispiriting performance? How could a team that complained about not being in the top 25 then go out and show so definitively why they were not in the top 25.

“I didn’t,” Stoops said when asked if he saw this coming. “I felt like we were ready to play. I felt like the guys had good energy in practice. It’s always a test. You get halfway through the season and these guys get in a mental and physical grind. The teams that withstand that and endure and get better and get stronger will win and the ones that don’t won’t.”

For the next week, Kentucky will have to endure the I-told-you-sos. Mississippi State is probably the best team Kentucky has played to date and the Cats failed the test measurably. After pulling to within 10-7, they were outscored 35-0. They managed just 260 yards of total offense. Before the game got way out of reach, they had run just 40 offensive plays compared to 67 for Mississippi State.

They knew coming into Saturday they had to contain Fitzgerald, State’s physical quarterback who could hurt you with his legs more than his arm. And Fitzgerald ended up with 115 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. All of that when Kentucky knew what was coming.

Who’s coming next is Tennessee, a team that also lost on the road (at Alabama) by the same 45-7 score. The Vols are reeling. Whether head coach Butch Jones will be accompanying his team to Lexington is a question up for debate. The Vols are 3-4 overall, 0-4 in the SEC.

Kentucky is 5-2 overall, 2-2 in the league. A Saturday win would have set up Stoops’ troops for a possible special season. The loss doesn’t ruin the season, but the way Kentucky lost, that 38-point margin, surely shakes the faith.

“We’re better than this,” said running back Benny Snell after rushing for just 18 yards on seven carries. “We know we are.”

I think they’re better than Saturday, too, but they are the ones who have to prove it.

Kentucky football players Stephen Johnson, Josh Allen, Courtney Love and Benny Snell talk about 45-7 loss at Mississippi State and what comes next.

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops and Eddie Gran talk about taking a shot on a third-and-1 pass late in the first half that missed. Mississippi State then drove for a TD on the way to a 45-7 win.

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops after his team’s 45-7 loss at Mississippi State.

Kentucky fans greet players and coaches at Wade Davis Stadium prior to their game against Mississippi State.

Next game

Tennessee at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)

Kentucky’s 10 biggest losses in last 20 years

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

Coach

Margin

10/25/08

@Florida

5

63

L

Brooks

-58

10/8/11

@South Carolina

3

54

L

Phillips

-51

10/14/06

@LSU

0

49

L

Brooks

-49

11/6/04

Georgia

17

62

L

Brooks

-45

10/13/12

@Arkansas

7

49

L

Phillips

-42

11/23/13

@Georgia

17

59

L

Stoops

-42

10/12/13

Alabama

7

48

L

Stoops

-41

11/3/12

Vanderbilt

0

40

L

Phillips

-40

11/18/00

@Tennessee

20

59

L

Mumme

-39

11/21/98

@Tennessee

21

59

L

Mumme

-38

9/24/11

Florida

10

48

L

Phillips

-38

9/22/12

@Florida

0

38

L

Phillips

-38

10/18/14

@LSU

3

41

L

Stoops

-38

9/10/16

@Florida

7

45

L

Stoops

-38

10/21/17

@Mississippi St

7

45

L

Stoops

-38

Kentucky football 2017

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

Rec

SEC

9/2/17

@Southern Miss

24

17

W

1-0

 

9/9/17

Eastern Kentucky

27

16

W

2-0

 

9/16/17

@South Carolina

23

13

W

3-0

1-0

9/23/17

Florida

27

28

L

3-1

1-1

9/30/17

Eastern Michigan

24

20

W

4-1

 

10/7/17

Missouri

40

34

W

5-1

2-1

10/21/17

@Mississippi St

7

45

L

5-2

2-2

10/28/17

Tennessee

     

11/4/17

Ole Miss

     

11/11/17

@Vanderbilt

     

11/18/17

@Georgia

     

11/25/17

Louisville

     
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