Bulldogs take on 'Cats in 'keen' rivalry

No more exciting games have been played through the years than in the Mississippi State and Kentucky SEC rivalry, especially over the last decade or so when the teams have met regularly.<P> Mississippi State travels Saturday to the Bluegrass State to renew the longstanding series with the Wildcats. Kickoff is set for 11:30 a.m. at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky. There should be fireworks aplenty gauging from the results in recent games between the Cats and Dogs.

It could be a reprieve for Mississippi State in view of all the distractions since last week with the announcement by the "Dean of SEC Coaches" Jackie Sherrill that he was retiring at the end of the current campaign.

Meanwhile, Mississippi State (2-5, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) will be trying to even its league mark at 2-2 with a win over the UKats led by high-powered "lefty" quarterback Jared Lorenzen. The Dogs are hopeful of launching a late-season run with an SEC victory at Kentucky, the first of five straight conference matches to close out the 2003 regular season.

Aside from all the speculation about who the new coach will be, Mississippi State Athletic Director Larry Templeton is one of a number, among the Bulldog family, who remains an optimist entering the stretch run.

"I still believe we can win the next five," he said during a press conference held earlier in the week to address the retirement of Sherrill, winningest coach in school history.

A number of the players were caught off guard by Sherrill's revelation. Sophomore running back Nick Turner, who scored on a spectacular 77-yard touchdown run against Auburn as he zig-zagged across the turf this past Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, said he thought the meeting was a routine one until later finding out differently.

"I thought it was just a regular meeting until I got there. I was surprised," said Turner, who is averaging an SEC-best 6.6 yards per carry for the Bulldogs, picking up 564 yards on 85 carries with seven touchdowns.

But the season goes on, Sherrill would be the first to declare, already encouraging the Mississippi State family and fans "to get behind the team the remainder of the year and fill the stands especially for the two remaining regular season home games."

There's still plenty of time for miracles heading down the stretch if the Maroon & White can reclaim some of the magic they enjoyed during the 1999 campaign en route to a banner 10-2 regular season, Sherrill's best in Starkville and a sensational run.

One of the "miracle" wins came against Kentucky, a dramatic, near-unbelievable comeback to nip the Wildcats, 23-22, before a packed house on the MSU campus joined by a national ESPN audience. The win extended MSU's record to a perfect 8-0, 5-0 SEC.

It appeared the winning streak might come to an abrupt halt against the Cats until Dontae Walker raced six-yards for a TD pulling to Dogs to within two, 22-20, with time running out.

However, MSU got the ball back after missing on a chance to tie the game on the two-point conversion, and quarterback Matt Wyatt, who had sparkled a last-minute,18-16, win over Auburn earlier in the season, tried his hand again ... first throwing to Kevin Love for 25 yards, then hitting Justin Griffith and Love again for substantial gains.

Now there were only five seconds remaining with the ball resting on the Kentucky 25 and on came Scott Westerfield with his "educated toe" to attempt a 45-yard field goal that could lift the Dogs and keep their record unblemished after eight games.

Westerfield drilled the three-pointer and bedlam broke out at Scott Field. The players were not the only ones leaping for joy, so did the packed house of thousands of fans.

It was an incredible finish, causing Sherrill to remark: "I don't know how many more like this my heart can take."

Sherrill and the Bulldogs will be facing a Rick Brooks coached team for the first time when MSU visits Lexington. Brooks is in his first year at Kentucky after accepting the job in Lexington during the off-season.

Kentucky (3-4, 0-3 SEC) posted a solid 35-14 win over Ohio of the Mid-American Conference in its last outing over the weekend at home. The Wildcats had a good chance to take two of their three SEC games before faltering - a heart-breaking 24-21 loss to Florida in a game that UK led late, and at South Carolina where the Gamecocks eked out a narrow, 27-21, win in a league contest that saw Lorenzen knocked out of the game on a hard tackle.

Lorenzen has completed over 60 percent of his passes this season (94-of-125) for 1147 yards and 12 touchdowns (10th SEC) and ranks 10th in the league in total offense with 166.9 yards per game. The record-breaking QB returned to the game against Ohio and threw two TD passes to tie Tim Couch for the Kentucky school record for touchdown passes in a career.

"It's not very often you play against a 260 to 270-pound quarterback (like Lorenzen)," said Sherrill. "He's a terrific athlete. If you try to grab him, he'll switch hands and throw it right handed."

Senior MSU quarterback Kevin Fant is third in the SEC in passing (124-of-230) for 1615 yards and is tied with Lorenzen, each passing for 12 TDs. However, Fant has completed but 53.9 percent of his passes.

Two of the most exciting players in the SEC, Mississippi State's outstanding receiver Justin Jenkins, an All-America candidate who leads the league in several statistical categories, and Kentucky senior Derek Abney, who the Bulldogs will remember from last year when the Cats' daredevil return guy brought back a pair of punts for touchdowns in a 45-24 UK triumph.

Jenkins, catching seven passes for 113 yards and a touchdown against Auburn last week, paces the SEC in receptions (47), yards (731), TDs (8), and average yards receiving per game (104.4). The senior from Pearl, Miss., is averaging 15.6 yards per catch.

Abney leads the SEC in all-purpose yardage having run up a total of 1,115 yards in seven games, an average of 159.3 a game. Ironically, MSU Turner ranks second in the league in all-purpose yards with 1,023, and ranks second-best with 146.1 yards per game.

Kentucky backup quarterback Shane Boyd accounted for four TDs in the win over Ohio, marking the first time in Wildcat history that a player scored by rushing, receiving and throwing a TD pass in the same game.

Mississippi State leads the series over the last 10 years, 6-4, but Kentucky is out front in the overall standings 17-13. The Bulldogs, who lead the series 8-4 in games played in Starkville, have won three of the last five meetings in Lexington.

Kentucky handed the Bulldogs a surprising setback last year in Starkville, sparked by Abney's two punt returns (69, 52) for touchdowns.

"Derek (Abney) is not averaging like he did last year," noted Sherrill. "But he can make you miss him."

Stopping Abney will be one priority for the Bulldogs defense led by T. J. Mawhinney, Jason Clark, Tommy Kelly, Kevin Dockery, Willie Evans, Darren Williams, Quinton Culberson and company, but it'll probably come down to a case if MSU can contain Lorenzen and mates.

The Dogs have proven they can put some points on the scoreboard as well, averaging 25.9 points a game, 7th in the league, a notch under Kentucky, averaging an even 27 points a game.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at sdnsport@netdoor.com

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