Dogs Hold Off Last Kat Gasp For 24-17 Victory

It might not have become the sort of shootout most foresaw. But in most every other aspect this renewal of the Mississippi State-Kentucky series fulfilled expectations by coming down to the last play. No, not the necessary kneel-down to roll off the final 31 seconds; it was the goal line interception of a fourth-down heave that sealed a 24-17 Bulldog victory in fitting style.

Fitting, because Mississippi State's sixth-straight win of 2010 and eighth overall victory belonged to the Bulldog defense. They were on the field for 85 Wildcat snaps, close on to 36 clock-minutes, and in oh so many situations where a single misstep would have allowed the Eastern Division visitors to earn the win. It didn't happen. Though Kentucky did drive from their ten-yard line right up to the red zone edge, an over-stressed State defense had enough left to force Mike Hartline into unloading just a little early, a little long…and a lot too directly to MSU cornerback Johnthan Banks.

Coach Dan Mullen's Bulldogs finally get to take an open-week break and enjoy both their 7-2 overall record, a 3-2 conference mark, and weekly-improving bowl status. Kentucky fell under break-even at 4-5 and is 1-5 in league play, though their November slate still makes bowl eligibility a reasonable objective.

State's win also ended a four-year string where the visiting team in this match of permanent inter-Division rivals had won. But then a Kentucky club accustomed to fourth-quarter comebacks kept the issue unsettled up to the moment Banks hauled in his second pick of the season. The Wildcat offense came with the expected approach, flinging early and often and ultimately for 258 yards as Hartline completed 23-of-41 passes. Two of those went for touchdowns including a game-tying strike to back Moncell Adams at 1:37 of the third quarter.

The other was to all-purpose, all-everything Randall Cobb, a 48-yard strike in the opening quarter to stem momentum of a 10-0 State start. Cobb was nothing but brilliant as a receiver with 12 total catches and 171 yards. Yet the Bulldogs could absorb this; they conceded air yards while clamping down on Cobb's keeper-runs with just 11 yards on five attempts. Kentucky abandoned that gameplan staple as MSU had it covered. So Raymond Sanders carried, literally, the bulk of the rushing load with 71 yards on 24 totes.

The Bulldogs had no intention of matching Kentucky throw-for-throw. They wanted to pound the ground and did it well. Returning after a game's absence for an ankle issue, tailback Vick Ballard rumbled for 103 yards on 14 carries. Over half his gains came on a single 54-yard burst in the first period, assuring State would at least never trail in the evening. Quarterback Chris Relf had 79 yards on 16 carries and scored the winning points on his four-yard slash in the last period.

Relf also threw for a touchdown, a second-quarter toss to Arceto Clark. Otherwise he was just 7-of-16 in the air for 111 yards. But, no Relf pass ended up in the wrong hands; whereas Hartline was picked off three times that counted and another that was overruled by a dubious defensive interference call. Mullen would have a few other such interference rulings to question, but what mattered was after throwing just four picks in previous games Hartline had a breakdown evening in Starkville.

But the real Bulldog MVP probably was punter Heath Hutchins; not so much for a 43.1 yard average on eight kicks but the hang-time and placement that set up superb State coverage and neutralized a frustrated Cobb.

Kentucky won the toss and despite bobbling the kickoff did get starting position at their 28-yard line. With 3rd-and-3 Hartline had no chance, swarmed-under by three Dogs with DT Fletcher Cox in the fore. The nine-yard sack meant a punt, to MSU's 26. The Dogs looked like a three-and-out also, but on third down WR Chris Smith sucked the deepest cornerback with him leaving WR Brandon Heavens open on the right sideline.

His catch-and-run produced 33 yards to the Wildcat 37. An end-around by WR Michael Carr got 16 more before State stalled at the 16-yard line. Derek DePasquale knocked the 33-yard field goal through at 10:49.

K Sean Brauchle's kickoff reached the end zone and Cobb brought it out only to his 16-yard line. But the Wildcats got one first down as LB Cameron Lawrence was holding the intended receiver; and another as on a third-down draw Sanders slashed for seven yards. The next third down, pressure forced Hartline to overthrow; and Bumphis returned the punt 15 yards out to State's 30.

Relf got the series started on his own 11-yard squirt through the center, an area State would exploit again shortly. Because after Ballard lost a yard on second down, the next snap he turned a routine delay-handoff into a special run. With TE Brandon Henderson sealing off support, the tailback shed an arm tackle by Winston Guy and outran cornerback Randall Burden to the end zone for a 10-0 lead at 5:37.

Starting from their 31-yard line the Wildcats moved quickly across midfield, sparked as Cobb made 11 yards by spinning off two tacklers. On 2nd-and-9 State gambled by blitzing both safeties and Hartline saw it coming. Cobb slanted into the vacated middle ground for a catch at the 40 and went untouched the rest of the way for a 10-7 scoreboard at 2:39.

Tyler Russell was given the ensuing State series, which lasted just three plays with a couple of long incompletions. Hutchins' first kick of the evening was fair-caught at the Wildcat 32. One catch-and-run by Cobb later it was first down on the 48. A downfield hold on a caught pass pulled the ball back the other side of midfield, and the quarters turned on a 3rd-and-14. After turning everyone in the other direction, DE Shane McCardell came around for a eight-yard sack.

Relf resumed control, and took it too with runs of eight, three, and 20 yards; the last as he spun-faked another Wildcat, and got a yard across midfield. TB LaDarius Perkins changed the pace for a 12-yard gainer, and when Relf had to pass on third down he found Perkins for a short catch and generous spot with first down at the 25-yard line. On second down Kentucky was naturally looking run; so Relf's play-action froze everyone including the defensive backs as Clark slipped open into the end zone. Relf laid his throw right in there for the touchdown at 9:38.

S Wade Bonner flipped Cobb on the kickoff return to the Wildcat 35, but he turned a third-down catch into a spot on State's 46 for first down. He ran wildcat for another conversion to the 35-yard line. Kentucky had a free play when a Dog lineman jumped the count, which was good for the Kats as LB Chris White intercepted the short pass. But White also tried an unwise lateral pitch as he went down, and Hartline smartly fell on the fumble at the 28 for a free first down.

That might have encouraged the Wildcats to push the luck again because Hartline looked into the end zone for Chris Matthews. The throw hung and S Nickoe Whitley had time to come over for the interception at 5:27.

The Bulldogs barely burned off a minute of that though, with one incomplete pass and Relf dragged down short on 3rd-and-8. Hutchins rushed his punt, too, which was downed at the Wildcat 45. State put the second front-seven defenders out to open this series, and they did the job two snaps before the regulars forced a third-down incomplete. Bumphis fielded the punt at the goal line, but offset it by getting back to the 20-yard line at 2:57.

Kentucky only had to use their second timeout after rushes because State obliged them with a third-down incompletion. This time though Hutchins hammered the ball 51 yards and S Marvin Bure nailed Cobb immediately at the 30-yard line. Sanders broke a seven-yard gainer for one first down, then State seemed to have a turnover as Whitley deflected a throw and LB Emmanuel Gatling caught the carom.

But Whitley was called for a dubious interference for free first down on the Bulldog 40. One more move of chains later it was 3rd-and-10; Cobb got the catch but only for four yards, and after running the clock down to 0:03 the Wildcats went for a 48-yard field goal. Ryan Tydlacka converted for a 17-10 intermission margin.

KR Maurice Langston made a bad decision on bringing the second-half kickoff out and even worse fumbled it, fortunately recovering at the 12-yard line. Ballard netted ten fast yards on an option-pitch, and Relf rushed for 12 on three totes. On 3rd-and-8 Relf couldn't quite get the ball to Smith, who was called for offensive interference anyway Hutchins unleashed a big punt and Cobb was swarmed at the 18-yard line even as Mullen berated the officials for their ideas about pass ‘interference'.

Cobb turned a square-out into 15 yards. Sanders had a 24-yard gain negated by a formation foul, but Matthews was open on the midfield stripe for another first down. But on 3rd-and-15 the Wildcats tried to fool State with a draw by Sanders. Not only was he tackled short of the sticks but fumbled with CB Corey Broomfield recovering at the Bulldog 46.

Relf had to fall on a botched exchange for loss of nine, and a nice Ballard gain was negated as Smith blocked in the back. Relf missed a third-down throw so Hutchins punted a roller to the Wildcat 19. Cornerback Broomfield slipped down on first down, leaving Cobb open for a 32-yard gain across the central stripe.

On fourth down needing two feet, Cobb got two yards to the 38. Soon it was fourth down again and about the same distance required; this time Sanders did the deed, across the 28. Another first down later Broomfield got tied up with Cobb at the one-yard line for another interference call, giving UK first-and-goal at the three-yard line. Mullen used a timeout which merely delayed the inevitable; with the Dog defense biting on the handoff fake Hartline rolled right for an easy touchdown toss to Allen and tied ball game at 1:37.

This UK kickoff was shorter and Bumphs bounced off a tackle at the 22 to reach the 38-yard line. But three rushes only got seven yards and the fourth quarter began with a Bulldog punt; fair-caught at the Wildcat 16. A couple of Sanders rushes netted four and Kentucky had to burn a timeout in third-down uncertainty. Bonner made certain that series ended as coming from waaay back in the secondary he caught a scrambling Hartline for loss of three.

State's decisive offensive series opened at their 37, and opened big. With the Kats looking for a routine first down rush Relf dropped a couple of steps and slid a throw to angling-in Bumphis with just a bit of edge on the UK safety. The result was a 35-yard gainer. Relf overthrew Henderson open at the goal line and had to convert 3rd-and-1 with a pinball-battered keeper. On second down he had an eternity to look over the field before pulling down and taking off for first-and-goal at the four. Relf then called his own number and bolted through right guard for the go-ahead touchdown at 10:28.

That left things up to the Bulldog defense, since their offensive comrades would go three-and-out the next two chances. They were up to the challenge. Hartline made a low throw work for one first down at the 45-yard line but Cox blitzed him into grounding the ball at his own feat; so blatant the ref hesitated before finally yanking the hankie. Hartline had to unload again on third down. Relf should have kept on 3rd-and-short to burn some clock; instead he let Perkins get dropped for no gain.

An exchange of punts left Kentucky with 5:08 and 90 yards to cover. Too far as it turned out, but only just because Hartline was smart and on target under pressure. Cobb had been shackled for much of the half, but found space in the middle for one third-down conversion at 3:54; then Allen moved the chain again at 2:23. Cobb came through again at 1:40 by falling forward for just enough yardage to State's 45, and did it again at 1:18. Banks lost coverage of Matthews at 0:55 for a completion to the 20.

The cornerback made up for that gaffe by blitzing Hartline into missing connections with Cobb; then it was Bonner's turn to blitz from the other side with another incompletion to set up the finish.

State's defense came in with just 15 sacks on the season; they put Hartline down four times for such losses and hit him more often. White extended his string of double-digit tackle games to four with 15 total stops, another career-high; while defensive backs had the next 21 combined tackles in further proof of aggressive work from the corners and safeties. UK linebacker Danny Trevathan was still the top tackler of all with 16 stops.

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