So were the two quarterbacks responsible for cashing in these opportunities. They've been just as tired of settling for field goals as anyone else. "It was good, when you get in the red zone you've got to score," said QB Tyler Russell, though adding, "I think we left some points out there but overall I think we did a good job."
The points-left were on the only intercepted Mississippi State, by QB Chris Relf on third down at the UK 19-yard line just before halftime. Mullen called it the right decision to throw that way, with two Bulldogs in the area; Relf simply mislocated. But it was the senior's only blemish all evening as he threw for one touchdown in the opening quarter and ran for two more scores before intermission.
"We just had to go out and execute," said Relf of the very-much-improved efficiency. Relf certainly did, and in the process scored his first rushing touchdown—two of them at that—all season. He'd rushed for five scores in 2010.
"Red zone scoring is on our plan to win but it's one of those things that defines a game. You look at the opportunities, we got down there and scored touchdowns," Mullen said. He didn't say but surely implied ‘instead of field goals'. Which is what Kentucky did on their first three trips to the MSU red zone. They got the trio of three pointers alright…but in harsh contrast each time the Bulldogs responded immediately with a touchdown.
"That was huge," said Mullen.
BIRTHDAY BOY: WR Michael Carr started the season with five catches the first two games, but had no receptions since. Not until tonight that is, as late in the first quarter he hauled in Tyler Russell's throw for a 40-yard gainer. The deep catch set up Mississippi State's second touchdown. And, it came on Carr's 21st birthday.
"Yeah, he did good!" said QB Russell. Better than good because Carr had to maneuver for position and literally overpower his man just to reach at the ball. "We practiced that actually," Russell reported. "Mike had a great week of practice and I threw some deep balls to him. He did the same thing, went up and caught it, so I trusted him."
GREEN LIGHT: But the night's longest completion, for that matter longest single play of the game, belonged to TE Marcus Green. In the second quarter State, already leading 14-6, had first down on their 38-yard line with Russell again under-center. Or rather taking the direct snap for a play-action that as planned froze Wildcat coverage.
Meanwhile Green leaked out and headed downfield between the hashes. "Tyler went through his progression and in that the tight end's job is just to get open," Green said. "When we do we have to make plays for the quarterback." He did, and Russell had all the time needed to deliver another long strike.
It might have been longer had Green not banged into the last Kat in support, safety Mikie Benton, and gone down on the 12-yard line. "I think I just ran out of gas!" Green joked. The irony is that he only needed another step to have a career-longest catch.
As it is Green now has caught three balls in the parts of four seasons played that went for 50 yards; no more, no less. Earlier in the game he had a 16-yard catch that also left Green spinning mid-air on the hit and hitting the ground helmet-first.
What Green didn't do was score a touchdown. That honor went to his fellow tight end, freshman Malcolm Johnson as he hauled in Russell's third-quarter strike. And it was a fastball indeed, from just 13 yards away. "It was a great throw by Tyler," Johnson said. "Great protection by our line giving Tyler time to throw. He had trust in me and I had trust him in."
Trust enough that Russell fired before the younger tight end looked back for the passer. Johnson still picked up the oncoming ball and got his hands up in time. Practice and timing, he said, and trust that if he got open Russell would notice. Oh, and just like Johnson's touchdown catch at UAB, this was a ball he had no choice but catch…
…because Russell put so much on it the leather locked onto gloves. "I had to catch it, the ball found me!" Johnson said. "And it was a great throw." And, further signs how State tight ends are an increasing part of the plans as young Johnson learns from old Dog Green. "We feed off each other, we keep each other motivated in practice and stuff," said Johnson. "He's a great leader to me and I'm glad to have him."
TICK, TICK, TICK: Dan Mullen has made it clear before, how time of possession is a mostly meaningless line on the stat sheet. He can certainly use this victory at Kentucky as proof. The Wildcats had the ball exactly 14 more clock-minutes, even out-snapped MSU 77 to 53 offensive plays. None of it mattered with the Bulldog offense hitting hard and fast.
The four scoring series added up to just over nine minutes of running clock. That would be quick even if the drives were set up by turnovers or returns. None of these were; three went 80 yards and the other 65. And while there were some big shots of 20, 30, and even 50 yards involved, it still took 23 snaps to cover all that ground.
"We just need more of them I guess!" Mullen joked about the quick-strike approach. In fact his team could have had more if not for a pair of first-half turnovers. The best measure of Mississippi State efficiency in the opening periods was P Baker Swedenburg had no more duty in the first half than holding three times on point-afters. He didn't have to punt until the third period, and only kicked twice all night.
ON THE OTHER HAND: In Mullen's three seasons success has swung, almost without fail, in accord with the turnover ratio. He came into Kentucky with a 15-0 record in games where the Bulldogs had fewer turnovers than the opponent.
Reminding that statistics often really are for losers, though, the Bulldogs got through a game without generating either an interception or a fumble recovery. Instead Mississippi State lost the handle twice and threw an interception, yet won the game anyway.
"It's not our best game when you turn the ball over three times," Mullen said. "But I tell you what, our kids played and made the plays when they needed to."
IN THE BAG: The Bulldog defense figured they had a chance to come after Kentucky quarterbacks, and prepared accordingly. "Coach stressed all week get a great pass rush, contain the run," said DT Josh Boyd. "He basically put it on our shoulders that we had to be the ones to stop this game, that we had to control the line of scrimmage. I think that's what we did tonight."
Did they ever, with 4.0 total official sacks, one hurry, and a few more flushings of the would-be passer. That was usually #2 quarterback Maxwell Smith, who would have played a good bit anyway with his throwing skills. But when running quarterback Morgan Newton went down on the second series with a hurt leg, after a DT Fletcher Cox sack, the heat was really dialed up.
"It was just doing things that we do in practice, beating the guy in front of you," said Cox, who finished with 2.0 sacks out of his 3.5 stops for losses and seven total tackles. "And I could tell it was working, we had a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We could have had more."
Actually Cox could have had at least one and maybe two more sacks, he meant. Once CB Johnthan Banks ran a corner-blitz and bagged Smith. "A couple more seconds and I would have been there but Banks did his job," Cox said. "I was kind of hot but I congratulated him! Actually I picked him up off the ground and threw him in the air!" With a soft landing thankfully.
The biggest pressure though didn't produce a sack, just a game-clinching incompletion. Kentucky's last chance to keep competitive saw them drive to State's eight-yard line with 4:52 left and fourth down. Smith dropped into an empty backfield that suddenly wasn't so empty as CB Corey Broomfield blew in from the off-side. Smith had to unload as the 180-pound corner dove into him at waist-level, and the throw missed everyone. "I just love to see that guy make plays!" Boyd said.
Cox, now… "Me and Broom actually came in at the same time. When Broom hit him I was surprised, I was like wow! He beat me to it and did a real good job at it." So that's two chances to bag a passer taken away by a teammate. "Hey, I ain't selfish," Cox said. "If they beat me there they deserve it."
MSU-ELLANEOUS NOTES: State has beaten Kentucky at Lexington three-straight trips, the first time ever in the series…It was also State's third consecutive win in the overall series…Dan Mullen is unbeaten against Kentucky both as a MSU head coach (3-0) and Florida assistant (4-0)…Mullen has eight SEC wins in three seasons, six of them against Eastern Division teams…This was only the second time in seven years the winning team in this series had a double-digit margin of victory…The Bulldogs did not score a turnover in the victory, the first time in 16 games Mullen has won despite a negative ratio…Kentucky tried a gimmick for the home game by wearing black jerseys for the first time ever. It did not produce a win, any more than had Mississippi State's similar September gimmickry for their LSU game.