Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 28-7 win over No. 14 Mississippi State on Saturday night at Kroger Field:
1. Mark Stoops has finally built a Mark Stoops defense.
First stat: Mississippi State entered the night fifth in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 311.7 yards per game. The Bulldogs finished with 56 yards on the ground.
Second stat: Coach Joe Moorhead’s team entered the night seventh in the nation in total offense, averaging 587.7 yards per game. The Bulldogs exited Kroger Field having gained just 201 yards.
Crazy stat: That’s the fewest yards UK has allowed an SEC team not named Vanderbilt since Ole Miss gained just 201 yards in a 21-0 loss to Bill Curry’s Cats way back in 1993 — 25 years ago.
“I didn’t really have time to even look at all the total yardage and all that,” said UK Coach Mark Stoops afterward. “All I know is we played good.”
Better than good. A major storyline all week was Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who had rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns in State’s 45-7 smackdown of the Cats last season in Starkville. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior had rushed for 159 yards and 107 yards in his two previous games this season.
Saturday night, however, thanks to the UK defense, Fitzgerald was anything but FitzMagic. He gained but a measly 20 rushing yards on 16 carries. He was sacked three times. His longest run from scrimmage was just 12 yards. After a 7-7 tie at halftime, Fitzgerald managed minus-4 yards rushing on seven carries in the second half.
“We were not overly complex tonight on defense,” said Stoops of the plan devised by defensive coordinator Matt House. “We had a great plan, but it was simple.”
Simply put, UK outside linebacker Josh Allen was the best defensive player on a field that also included MSU defensive studs Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. In fact, the senior was unblockable. He ended up with six tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, but the stats didn’t reflect the havoc he caused all night. Allen constantly chased or put pressure on Fitzgerald, taking up residence in the Mississippi State backfield. And when he didn’t, he was probably held.
“He is a dominant football player,” Stoops said.
When Stoops arrived as UK’s head coach in 2013, the question was could he build a dominant defense like the one he coordinated at Florida State. It has taken recruiting, development and patience, but especially after Saturday’s performance, the head coach appears to have the makings of that kind of defense.
2. The Kroger Field crowd made a difference.
There were questions all week about what the atmosphere would be like for the Saturday night showdown with a ranked SEC team. UK’s first two home games had each drawn less than 50,000. As of last Tuesday, more than 14,000 tickets were still available for 61,000-seat Kroger Field. Despite promotions and publicity, the fear was more empty seats. And plenty of them.
Despite the worries, and despite the rain, a crowd not only showed up — 60,037 was the announced attendance — but it played a starring role, making noise, twirling white towels, coaxing Mississippi State into multiple pre-snap penalties on a night in which the visitors were penalized 16 times for 139 yards.
“That’s what we play in the SEC; that’s the environment we’re supposed to play in,” Stoops said. “And it makes a difference.”
“The atmosphere was amazing,” said UK running back Benny Snell, who rushed for 165 yards and four touchdowns. “This is what football is all about. That’s college football right there. I’m living my dream right now and I couldn’t be more happier; the support and the crowd was amazing.”
Snell provided plenty of reasons to cheer, rushing for over 100 yards for the third time in four games this season and the 15th time in his career. He is now the school’s all-time touchdown leader with 39, passing Randall Cobb. He’s the first player in program history to have four touchdowns in a game twice in his career.
And remember, last season Snell was held to just 17 yards on eight carries in that egg UK laid in Starkville.
3. Knocking down a door every seven days.
OK, so let’s total them up, starting with the fact that UK is now 2-0 in the SEC for the first time since 1977. Coincidentally, that’s the last time a Kentucky football team posted a winning record in the nation’s toughest conference. Led by Derrick Ramsey and Art Still, Fran Curci’s Cats finished 10-1 overall and 6-0 in league play that season.
Kentucky has now beaten two ranked teams in the same season for the first time since 2007. Rich Brooks’ club beat No. 9 Louisville 40-34 in the season opener and No. 1 LSU 40-34 in overtime. That team finished 8-5 with a win over Florida State in the Music City Bowl.
And this is the first time UK has won consecutive games over ranked teams since 1977. Curci’s club went 4-0 against ranked teams that season. This year, Kentucky defeated No. 25 Florida 27-16 in Gainesville, and now the 14th-ranked Bulldogs.
“And guess what?” Stoops said. “We have another opportunity to prove it seven days from now.”
South Carolina won’t be ranked when the Gamecocks visit Lexington on Saturday. But Will Muschamp’s club will be coming off a convincing 37-14 win at Vanderbilt. And they will remember that they have lost four straight to Stoops and his Cats.
Kentucky hasn’t been 5-0 since that Brooks’ team of 2007. The Cats haven’t been 3-0 in the league since 1977.
“We’re knocking the dang doors down one at a time,” said Stoops, after voicing some frustration about all the obstacles that are supposedly in his team’s way. “So we’re going to knock a door down every seven days is what we’re trying to do, because one of you will come up with something.”
At the end of the mock- or mini-rant — Stoops also let slip a smile at one point — the coach said, “What other doors you guys got?”