Because Robinson bore all those burdens and still ran wild, Mississippi State was able to leave Lexington with both the perfect record and the #1 national ranking intact. Robinson’s career-high 198 rushing yards and two touchdowns tipped the Bulldog balance to their 45-31 victory over the Wildcats.
“Hey, I’ve got to make it happen, I guess!” Robinson said. “But it was a great team win, that’s all that matters. We faced adversity in four quarters but we came out on top.”
Adversity, indeed. The Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) arrived with a #1 by their name and target on their backs, and Kentucky (5-3, 2-3) took its very best shot. Not until an absolutely unexpected touchdown return of an on-sides kickoff by LB Christian Holmes at 2:22 of the final quarter could Mississippi State start celebrating.
Because for the proverbial four quarters Kentucky had an answer for almost everything the Dogs threw—or ran—at them. When they scored at 2:31 to make it a one-touchdown margin for the fifth time, observers nation-wide were watching for a potential upset to scramble the projected playoff standings again. Coach Dan Mullen tipped the visor at the home team before praising his own ball club for just plain persevering under the pressures, real or perceived.
“For us, I‘m really proud. We had guys step up and make plays when we needed to make plays. We’ve been able to do that all season.” A season that has given State a 7-0 start for only the third time ever (1999, 2012), to go with this first top-ranking. Whether or not the #1 last another week was not much of a post-win concern, either.
Though, QB Dak Prescott agreed, these two weeks atop the polls might have impacted this game. Not that the Bulldogs came to Kentucky cocky; they’ve had too many four-quarter battles with previous Wildcat teams to take this rivalry for granted. Still Prescott sensed an odd atmosphere around the club.
“I don’t know if tight is the word, but something was different about us. We didn’t have the same vibe, the same attitude. But we got back to it. We got the win so that’s really all that matters at the end of the day.”
That vibe wasn’t any issue initially, as State got a stop on the first defensive series before knocking out a fast offensive touchdown just like so many other games. From there on however it was scratch-and-claw and just try not to let the Kats catch up. They didn’t…but it got really tense at times.
“I thought we played a little tight in the first half, I really do,” Mullen said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘this is the first time you’ve ever played as the number-one team in the country. And these are young kids. I thought they played a little tight at times. But we continued to find a way to make plays and win a game.”
Because despite some interesting and not always productive offensive choices, State could always call on its two trumps. Robinson was magnificent when needed most. He put up the first Bulldogs points on a 12-yard blast that required rattling off at least two hits. And in the fourth quarter with the margin back down to seven again, he took off on a highlight-reel run of 73 yards that not only beat contact but had an instinctive direction-change at the UK 25-yard line to let him get to the goal at 11:47.
This wasn’t even his most amazing run. That came in the third period. Robinson went up the middle, collided with multiple Kats, was pushed to the left side by further contact; escaped a grasp to change direction entirely, running all the way to the other numbers and banging through bodies for a 22-yard gainer that had to cover more like 70 yards’ distance.
Of his 23 total carries Robinson got 10 or more yards seven times and averaged 8.6 each touch. “He had a heck of a game,” Mullen said.
Prescott’s game was a little more difficult to define, beyond the obvious that he did a quarterback’s main job by winning. Again. He also became the school’s record-holder for 200-yard passing games with 216 yards on 18-of-33 completions, and threw a beautiful eight-yard touchdown strike to TE Brandon Hille after UK had gotten within 24-17.
Prescott also fed off Robinson’s running for 88 rushing yards of his own and scored twice more with keepers of two and 11 yards. At the same time he had one throw intercepted, when his motion was altered by a shot to the ribs while throwing before halftime, and was sacked three times. After such an easy opening drive, 82 yards in 11 plays, Prescott said Kentucky changed their defense.
“I think it was really me, I missed some throws. They did a good job coming up on the receivers and making it harder on catches.” Still when State absolutely had to have a pass play connect, Prescott found somebody. Or lots of somebodies since he was able to distribute the ball to eight teammates, six for multiple grabs. And when all was added-up the Dogs did top 500 yards (542) yet again and stayed on their SEC scoring pace.
The surprise was how often and sometimes easily the Wildcats answered. Patrick Towles got his first college touchdown against Mississippi State back in 2012, then redshirted last season. The development showed. Towles was splendid for the home folk, 24-of-43 passing for 390 yards with two touchdowns; but also kept the ball for two more scores and 76 net yards. Only six sacks and some scrambles kept him from a 100-yard rushing day.
“He had a heck of a day,” Mullen said. So did receiver Ryan Timmons with five balls for 114 yards, and Demarco Robison with four catches and 86 yards and a touchdown. Those and other deep-ball threats were why State never could pull away comfortably. Though, the Dog defense played practically all day rushing just four or even three and trying to cover, with frustrating results.
LB Beniquez Brown said the defense made its share of mistakes. “And I think coming in we didn’t prepare for (Towles) to run as much as he did. We feel we did a good job on the running back but they got some runs with the quarterback.” The rest of UK’s runners netted just 27 yards of their 504 total.
Bottom line, Kentucky could throw a scare into State but not win it with just long passes and quarterback keepers. “We just locked in when we really needed to,” said Brown, whose eight tackles topped the Dog. DT Kaleb Eulls scored two sacks in his five stops and DE Ryan Brown 1.5 more sacks.
“You give up 500 yards and you’re not happy,” Mullen said. “I’m certainly not pleased how we played on defense. But I will say we made the plays we needed to win the game.” Those plays included a first-quarter field goal by PK Evan Sobiesk of 26 yards to break the only tie and give State the 10-7 lead. PK Logan Cooke took a swing at a 42-yarder later in the half that missed, but Holmes’ stunning return of Kentucky’s obligatory on-sides try more than balanced the special teams books. So did P Devon Bell averaging 49 yards on his four punts, returning after a two-game absence.
There were some natural concerns how for the first time this season State didn’t build a big lead early, or hold the other offense down for three periods, or whatever one wanted to worry about. And then there was the prospect of slipping out of #1 in both polls…
…which is something Mullen hopes State has shed from all shoulders by now. “Hopefully we can get all this ranking stuff behind us. You can drop us down if you want or raise us.” Which would be tough to do at #1 but the theme holds true. “I think our kids are going to be over it now. We’re 4-0 in the SEC after playing a tough road game in a tough environment. We’ll enjoy this win tonight, and on to Arkansas tomorrow.”