"It was big," said QB Dak Prescott. "We needed confidence regardless if it was close or how we got the win. We got it and it was a good one." They also got a first Thursday night conference victory since 2001.
The Wildcats left campus 1-6, 0-4, and frustrated. Having battled back into contention, with a fair bit of unintended home-team help, Kentucky was positioned to pull off an upset. In fact they came within a hand-tackle of it, as only a saving grab by S Kendrick Market with 90 seconds left prevented Raymond Sanders from breaking away with the go-ahead touchdown.
"We got together on the sideline as a defense and I just told them we can't give up any touchdowns or whatever," MLB Benardrick McKinney said. That it came down to a series in sight of the Bulldog red zone was business as usual, it seems.
"That's the second game in a row now we've made a great defensive stand at the end to win," said Mullen.
Great as the stand may have been, and as comfortable as both offensive and defensive Dogs claimed to be under that repeated pressure, it was still a frighteningly close call. One missed assignment and bowl hopes could have been ruined. Calling the seventh game of the season a ‘must' win seemed strong, but WR Jameon Lewis agreed.
"It was a must win. We lost both our SEC games, we had to get the W."
Even Mullen admitted, this one ought to have come easier. State came away with sizable edges in yardage and possession time, and for a pleasing change dominated third-downs with 10-of-18 conversions. Kentucky had the same number of chances but made good only four times. However the Wildcats, a team with little to lose anyway, took their chances on five fourth downs and converted four of them. It was just the last one, the one counting for most, which failed.
"We want to make it easier on the defense," said Prescott. "But when we do have to put our trust in them, we trust them." With 447 net yards and 5.7 gained each offensive snap it could have been Dog domination indeed. However, "A lot of that comes from penalties, some mistakes," Mullen said. "The last drive we had two wrong checks, so you're ending up in 2nd and -11. You drive the ball, make some plays, and make errors that put you behind the chains and don't get points."
Points came easily enough for both sides early with State putting up a touchdown on first turn. This was after Kentucky's opening series ran off six snaps in less than two minutes, signaling their tempo-approach for this matchup. On a third down Prescott evaded Za'Darius Smith's grasp, rolled out and had room to run ahead.
Except three Wildcat defensive backs had let TE Malcolm Johnson get way behind them all for a catch around the 20-yard line and jog into the end zone at 11:28. Kentucky had their own big hit too as on a third down at their 49-yard line Smith found Ryan Timmons on an inside screen. The wideout cleared traffic untouched and was gone for the tying touchdown at 8:38.
State trumped that one as RB LaDarius Perkins broke a 35-yard rush on the first snap. Prescott kept the drive going to the Wildcat 19-yard line. After a Kentucky timeout, Prescott read the defense rightly.
"It was a check call we had within the play. They gave the defense we wanted and it worked out. There was no deep, and get on the edge and beat them." Which Lewis did, getting position ahead of Prescott to take the pitch and cut upfield. TE Brandon Hill held up two defenders giving Lewis clear sailing for the touchdown at 6:34.
Just when a shootout was shaping up, State changed quarterbacks as scripted. And QB Tyler Russell did net one first down with a pass and ran for another nine yards. But out of an empty formation he had to keep on 3rd-and-short and was sacked; worse, the senior rolled his left ankle and was done for the night.
Kentucky didn't use the reprieve immediately, missing a 47-yard field goal to open the second quarter. Midway of the period Prescott directed a third touchdown series. He and RB Josh Robinson muscled the ball down to the 17 which had the Kats looking for another quick keeper. Instead State went play-action. "So they had to respect the run," Prescott said. "They sat there and our receivers did a great job of getting behind, and he was open." He being Lewis, beating nickel man Nate Willis into the end zone for the easy catch at 6:14.
It could have and should have been 21-7 by halftime. But the Bulldogs didn't run off enough clock before the break and Kentucky had a chance to make something happen. They did with a big hand—and illegal one twice—by S Nickoe Whitley. He drew two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in a three-snap stretch, was ejected from the game, and advanced the Kats to the MSU 29-yard line. This time Joe Mansour wasn't only good but from a career-long 44 yards, at 0:31. State did go on a frantic drive that got within range for PK Devon Bell but his 47-yard drive was lined to the left.
Bell was involved with another breakdown, in the third quarter. Prescott took a 18-yard sack on third down back to the MSU four-yard line, and alternate punter Bell simply dropped the snap for a safety. This inspired Kentucky's offense too, aided by starting on their 48 after the free kickoff. It took five plays to score with JoJo Kemp splitting two defenders for a 14-yard touchdown at 4:19. The drive was accelerated as gimpy quarterback Jalen Whitlow took over and threw the Dog defense off their stride.
"It was different," McKinney said. "We prepared for him or whatever. But we were used to #11 (Smith) in the game so when he got in we had to get a feel for him and adjust."
The Wildcats tried to ride the hot streak with an onsides kickoff, which they caught but on their 49-yadr line for a penalty. So State got to start on the 26 and here Prescott rose to the occasion with a gutsy drive. He saved 2nd-and-18 after a holding penalty by finding first-time player TE Artimas Samuel for a 28-yard strike across midfield. Kentucky's Willis interfered with WR De'Runnya Wilson for first down on the 17, and now State called up the throwback-pass play that had worked in the Troy game for a touchdown. Kentucky bit just as hard on Lewis's roll to the right, leaving Prescott free on the left for an easy catch and hard run across the goal at 0:36.
The 28 points would be enough, barely. Smith returned for a field goal drive, Mansour hitting from 44 yards at 8:15 of the fourth quarter, to make it a one-score contest. The Bulldogs got to Kentucky's 35 with second down and a chance to ice it inside three minutes. Instead on pass, to Perkins, netted two yards and another was missed to stop the clock.
Prescott tried again on 4th-and-9 only to get sacked, giving Kentucky possession at their 42 with 2:08 to make something happen. "Those last two plays those are really on me and not our offense," Mullen admitted. Fortunately after two Kentucky first downs the defense met the challenge, led by McKinney and LB Deonta Skinner with 10 and 11 tackles respectively. UK's Alvin Dupree topped that with 13 stops.
Prescott threw 34 times with 24 caught for 268 yards, all career-highs for the sophomore. "I did alright, there's a lot of things I need to do better and should have done on the field," he said. Especially in a one-score second half that netted just 153 yards. "I wish I could tell you right now," said Prescott of the slump. "But it's something we'll figure out."
Getting Lewis the ball early and often was easy to figure as the wideout caught seven throws for 53 yards and a score, rushed twice for 22 more yards and a second touchdown, and of course threw for a third. "And I'm thankful Coach and them gave me the opportunity to do it again." Malcolm Johnson had 79 yards on four balls with the touchdown, and nine other Dogs caught at least one pass.
Perkins worked hard for his 65 rushing yards on 12 totes, over half of it on one big burst. Prescott gained 70 yards running but lost over half as much to net only 33 as he was sacked three times. Sanders led the Kentucky ground game with 86 yards while Kemp added 63. Timmons had 69 yards on five catches as Smith was 18-of-34 for 160 yards. Neither team threw an interception or lost a fumble, as the State safety didn't count as a turnover.
The SEC win? That counted. Mullen was frustrated with all the mistakes and missed opportunities that would have allowed a much smoother success. "But, we got a win. 4-3, and it's a good position to be in right now, in the second half of the season have a winning record. We have five more games we can go and we need to finish this season off tin the right way and keep moving in the right direction we've been moving in."