John Clay

Kentucky fails to answer the cowbell and flunks test at Mississippi State

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Game day: Kentucky at Mississippi State

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Listen up, class.

Here’s your teachable moment for a young team that spent a long, hot day in the classroom that was Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday.

You can’t play as poorly as the Kentucky Wildcats did in the first half and win on the road in the SEC.

No way, no how. You can’t throw a pick-six before the home fans at Mississippi State even get settled into their seats. You can’t let a true freshman quarterback ramble and scramble his way to key third down conversions. You can’t fail to contain a running back as big and physical as the Bulldogs’ Kylin Hill. You can’t trail by 18 at the half.

Bottom line: Mississippi State answered the (cow)bell and Kentucky didn’t on the way to a 28-13 victory.

“I didn’t have the team ready to play,” said UK coach Mark Stoops, his team now 2-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC.

That’s what coaches are supposed to say and there’s truth in the statement that the head coach is responsible for his team’s preparation. For the first 30 minutes on Saturday the Cats did not appear prepared to play.

A hangover from last week’s 29-21 home loss to Florida in which the Cats blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead? Maybe. From this vantage point, I didn’t think Saturday’s first half flop was as bad as last year’s 24-7 Vols loss after Kentucky was beaten by Georgia in a game that decided the SEC East Division title. For one thing, this Mississippi State team is a lot better than last year’s Tennessee team — or this year’s Tennessee team, for that matter.

It was still bad though, right from the fourth play of the game when Mississippi State linebacker Willie Gay Jr. picked off a pass by Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith and danced 52 yards for a touchdown.

“That put us in a hole,” Stoops said.

It was just 85 seconds into the game, however. On the road in the SEC, adversity will happen. Count on it. You have to brush it off, get back on your feet and fight through it. Instead, this young Kentucky team compounded that early error with more errors and by halftime Mississippi State’s lead was 21-3.

To their credit, the Cats finally got around to responding. They made plays on defense — an interception by junior college defensive back Quandre Mosely late in the first half; a strip sack by junior college defensive back Brandin Echols that led to a fumble recovery in the second — and moved the ball on offense.

Just not far enough. Kentucky was a woeful 1-for-12 on third down and failed to cash in red zone chances. First three possessions of the second half, UK was inside the MSU 20-yard line only to come away with 10 points — touchdown, missed field goal, field goal.

“If we make a couple of plays in the red zone it might have been a different game,” said Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.

Give Mississippi State credit. With Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M remaining on the schedule, this was almost a must-win for Joe Moorhead’s Bulldogs. MSU was coming off a tough defeat of its own, losing a fourth-quarter lead in a 31-24 loss at Kansas State. Moorhead’s men responded the right way.

Stoops’ squad did not. It gave up 241 rushing yards. MSU quarterback Garrett Shrader completed 17 of 22 passes while rushing for 125. Meanwhile, UK’s Smith, who banged up his shoulder near the end of the second quarter of his first SEC road start, gutted it out, but hit on only 15 of 41 passes. And there was that costly interception.

“I think if we had played the whole game like we did the second half it would have been a different game,” Smith said.

Next up on the travel schedule: South Carolina, where the 1-3 Gamecocks are fighting for their lives. The Cats must carry Saturday’s lesson to Columbia. It might be most important how you finish, but it still matters how you start.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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