Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s loss at Mississippi State

Three takeaways as Kentucky dropped to 2-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC with a 28-13 loss at Mississippi State:

1. The Kash Daniel situation was handled clumsily, but correctly

The saga started this week when video showed that in the bottom of a pile, UK’s senior linebacker gave an extra twist of Florida quarterback Kyle Trask’s ankle in an apparent attempt to injure the Gator during last Saturday’s game at Kroger Field.

When Daniel met with the media on Wednesday, he denied that he purposely tried to hurt Trask, saying instead that his hand got caught under a lineman and he was trying to pull it out of the pile. A second video, however, showed that was clearly not the case.

When UK head coach Mark Stoops said Thursday that his senior linebacker would “be on the field” Saturday in Starkville — which prompted widespread criticism — but he didn’t say when Daniel would be on the field. And as it turned out, the Paintsville native did not occupy his usual team captain spot for the coin toss and did not enter the game until the second quarter.

Moral of the story: If on Wednesday Daniel had admitted that he let his emotions get away from him and apologized for his action, the whole thing would have blown over rather quickly. Instead, it was an issue all week, when it didn’t have to be.

2. Sawyer Smith had a down, up, down day

The first SEC road start for the grad transfer from Troy began rather rudely. Four plays into the contest, Mississippi State linebacker Willie Gay intercepted a Smith pass and took it 52 yards for a touchdown giving the host Bulldogs a 7-0 lead with 13:35 still remaining in the first quarter.

Thus, Kentucky played catch-up all afternoon. Smith made some good throws. He also made some high throws, had some throws dropped, was sacked three times and played the entire second half with a throwing shoulder he injured in the second quarter.

On the day, Smith completed 15 of 41 passes for 232 yards without a touchdown and with that one costly pick six. The Kentucky offense scored just one touchdown. The 42 passes were the most thrown by UK in a game since a 42-16 loss at Mississippi State on Oct. 24, 2015 when the Cats were 30-of-52 through the air. The 35.7 percent completion percentage was the lowest in a game in which UK attempted at least 20 passes since Nov. 28, 2015 when the Cats were just 9-of-26 in a 38-24 loss to Louisville.

Smith played so well against Florida it was easy to forget that (a) he began the season as a second-stringer behind Terry Wilson, who is out for the year with a knee injury and (b) he’s not played against this level of competition before. Troy has an excellent program and upset the likes of LSU and Nebraska during Smith’s time there, but did not play SEC competition on a weekly basis.

3. Kentucky has a kicking problem

Redshirt freshman Chance Poore has a tremendous leg. So far, however, Poore has not shown to have an accurate leg.

He entered Saturday’s game just two-of-four on field goals this season. He made his first two attempts, a 46-yarder against Toledo and a 40-yarder against Eastern Michigan. But then he missed his next two, a 49-yard attempt against Eastern Michigan and the key 35-yarder against Florida which would have given UK a 24-22 lead with under a minute to play. Instead, Kentucky lost 29-21.

Saturday in Starkville, Poore got off to a strong start, drilling a 4-yarder with 2:49 left in the first quarter to get Kentucky on the board. But he missed a 47-yarder wide left in the second quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, Poore missed a chip-shot 26-yard field goal that would have pulled UK to within 21-13 with 12:15 to play. He also appeared to be injured on the play after completing the kick.

When on the next possession Kentucky again moved inside the red zone without reaching the end zone, Stoops called Poore’s backup Matt Ruffolo, a junior from Centreville, Ohio, who made the 29-yard attempt with 4:39 remaining.

Afterward, Stoops said that Poore’s unspecified injury played a role in the decision to go with Ruffolo but the coach was considering making a change there anyway. Either way, it’s definitely a situation that Kentucky must remedy before heading to South Carolina.

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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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