“It’s the standard around here,” CB Taveze Calhoun said.
Mississippi State (6-2, 2-2 SEC) met that standard with a mostly-dominating performance on Scott Field. The result was a sixth year of consecutive bowl eligibility, along with a seventh-straight victory over Kentucky (4-3, 2-3).
Just as all expected RB Brandon Holloway said. But, not so much from tradition or trend. “We talked about it every day, it was probably the best week of practice we had. Every day was better. And we came in real confident today.”
Confident enough to shrug off what has become a ‘streak’ peculiar to 2015. As in, getting scored on first and fast. Kentucky turned their second possession into a touchdown, and when State matched that the Wildcats added a field goal before the first quarter ended.
The rest of the evening belonged to the home team. Mississippi State put up 21 unanswered points to take control before halftime and added a couple of second half touchdowns to pad the margin. In fact the 26-point difference is the largest of Coach Dan Mullen’s seven-straight wins in the series.
“We talked about wanting to play more of a complete game in all three phases,” Mullen said. “I think we did that. Certainly our best performance in all three phases of the year.”
It was also the best-balanced effort of QB Dak Prescott’s senior season. That too wasn’t unexpected. Prescott has had an excellent career against Kentucky already. He used the fourth turn to tie a program record with six total touchdowns in a game, something only legendary Jackie Parker had done before (Auburn, 1952).
Prescott threw for three touchdowns and rushed for three more, and piled up 465 yards of total offense. It had been 14 games since the senior rushed for 100 yards. Kentucky’s defense gave him openings and opportunities to get 117 on just 13 keepers, called or forced.
“It was just the coverages they were giving me, respecting my arm and dropping guys,” Prescott said. “And it was just something I wanted to take advantage of, and I’ve got to do going forward.”
The Wildcat defense was doomed if they did drop into coverage, and doomed if they didn’t. Prescott missed on his first two throws, then reeled off eleven completions with the 12th ruled incomplete on review. Before taking off the helmet mid-fourth quarter, Prescott was 25-of-35 for 348 yards and touchdowns of 13, eight, and 13 yards…all to different targets and for that matter different position-groups; a back, tight end, and split end.
“I just played real relaxed tonight,” Prescott said. “I knew I was prepared for the game.”
So did another Dog. Holloway has had some hit-and-miss games this season in the running back rotation. Kentucky was a club he could hit, and did. He turned six runs into 36 yards, but it was his work as a receiver that played bigger. Holloway ended with five catches and 98 yards, one for the eight-yard touchdown.
But it was turning a simple dump-off in the left flats into a 63-yard sideline scamper that helped break things open before halftime. Holloway didn’t score on that catch-and-run; “I was gassed,” he admitted. Two snaps later Prescott did on a 20-yard keeper. Holloway’s work exemplified State’s varied attacks on Kentucky’s overmatched defense.
“If you run the ball well it opens up the pass game,” said Holloway. “If you pass the ball well it opens up the run game.” Which, he said, was due to superior play by the offensive line this time. “I was talking about it on the sideline how they were pushing people off the ball and things like that. I thought they had a really good night.”
At the same time the Bulldog defense was closing down Wildcat opportunities. They’ve become so used to giving up early points that Kentucky’s touchdown drive rattled nobody. “It seemed like the last few games the opposing team comes out and scores on us,” OLB Beniquez Brown said. “We really just got settled in, comfortable, and did our jobs.”
Kentucky did gain yards all evening, 423 on an eye-opening 85 snaps with 30 first downs. But no Wildcat reached an end zone again, with Austin MacGinnis booting field goals of 44, 48, and 32 yards with another miss of 48 yards.
“Give them credit, they’ve got some good players,” Mullen said. “We had some missed tackles, and some missed opportunities.” And, some very-much made opportunities. Most obviously by cornerback Calhoun.
With State leading 21-10 late in the second quarter Calhoun made an excellent diving grab of a ball thrown over Dorian Baker for his first interception of the season. Holloway’s big play followed promptly to break it open. One series into the second half, Calhoun struck again.
This interception was even more impressive, as he tipped another pass meant for Baker and caught his own carom. “I just kind of stuck my hand out on both of them and made a good play.”
State had two more interceptions, though only one counted. Linebacker Brown’s pick and return for touchdown in the third quarter was negated by a roughing penalty on DE Jonathan Calvin. At least Calvin got a measure of clean payback in the fourth quarter. His rush and hit on Drew Barker produced a short throw intercepted by DT Cory Thomas.
The other picks came off Wildcat triggerman Patrick Towles. The junior had a mostly-good game with 23-of-42 passing for 218 yards and ran for 13 more when necessary. But after the first quarter the red zone was off-limits for Towles and the UK offense. Big back Stanley Williams typified the game; while rushing for 95 net yards with several big runs he didn’t get across a goal himself. Towles did that on a one-yard dive.
Compared to that, Prescott had touchdown totes of one yard to tie it briefly; the 20-yarder before halftime; and a 18-yard impromptu keeper for the final points of the evening. State took the lead when Prescott hooked up with WR De’Runnya Wilson at 13:38 of the second quarter from 13 yards out. And just about typifying his game, Prescott had seemingly endless time before hitting TE Darrion Hutcherson for a 13-yard strike late in the third quarter.
Wilson finished with 91 yards on his four catches and the usual touchdown expected of State’s ace receiver. WR Fred Ross had a quiet night though coming off last week’s shoulder injury, two catches and 11 yards.
S Kivon Coman led with nine tackles while both linebacker Browns, Beniquez and Richie, had seven apiece. The only State sack belonged to the third starting linebacker, Zack Jackson.
Now Mississippi State can take their break in good conscience, having swept their home-stand and locked up post-season status. Again, all as planned.
“We knew we were coming home for three winnable games,” said Prescott. “If we could win them big and get the confidence going we could put ourselves in good position.”