The Bulldogs were able to win regardless of a less-than-perfect effort and walk off Scott Field now 3-5 and 2-3 SEC. Kentucky fell to 1-7 overall and remained the only SEC team without a conference win at 0-5.
Coming after last week's upset of Florida, State has strung together consecutive league wins for the first time since the 2000 season. The Dogs also surpassed the two-win totals of the previous three seasons. All of which pleased the head coach. But Croom would have been even more pleased if State had made a more efficient afternoon of it.
"We had opportunities to put this away early and didn't do it. That's part of learning how to win."
Fortunately the Bulldogs made the most of some decisive opportunities. After Kentucky finally ended a shutout and cut the margin to 13-7 with seven minutes left, State utilized all three squads to put the game away. Jared Cook bounced a 33-yard punt out of bounds at the Wildcat one-yard line, and on the next play freshman linebacker Titus Brown bagged quarterback Shane Boyd in the back of the end zone for a safety and 15-7 lead at 3:28.
Then when Ty Freeman fell on the skipped free-kick, the MSU offense notched its only score of the day. Backup tailback Fred Reid reversed field and outran pursuit to the left-side pylon 32 yards away at 3:17.
Reid's last run boosted his afternoon's work to 109, just two shy of his career-high (111 vs. Troy State in 2002), and was more ground than Kentucky's whole backfield could gain (84 yards on 35 carries). Starter Jerious Norwood finished with 165 yards on 24 rushes, and State averaged almost seven yards per running play. "Our two runners made plays at the end when we really needed them," Croom said. "Jerious had another outstanding day and Fred came in and made some big plays at the end to get the game over with." Reid took care of the conclusive series after Norwood slightly hurt his left knee.
But the gaudy numbers did not change the fact that MSU was not crisp offensively. Kentucky's 3-4 defense caused some problems, the Bulldog blockers said. "It was a lot of mental stuff, a little different in making calls and everything," noted guard/center Brian Anderson. A first-quarter head injury to starting center Chris McNeil also broke the rhythm and forced Anderson to change jobs mid-game. And after a big day against Florida, neither quarterback Omarr Conner nor his wide receivers were sharp at all.
They didn't have to be. Not with the Dog defense playing their best-rounded game of the season and coming within a questionable call of a SEC shutout. "We could have played a lot better offensively," Croom said. "Our defense came to play today, and they were outstanding."
"The defense played real big," Anderson agreed.
Real big, and real fast. It took all of 62 seconds for the Bulldog defense to show who was in charge, by putting up the first points for either side. All week State's defensive staff was kept guessing which Kentucky quarterback would start, runner Shane Boyd or thrower Andre Woodson. Senior Boyd, who had missed the Auburn game with a hurt shoulder, got the call, and on second down he kept for a 11-yard gain and first down.
But on the next play UK attempted a one-step drop and quick throw for a receiver in the left-slot. Except Boyd's bullet zipped right into the waiting hands of Culberson, who was watching for the ‘bubble' play at the line of scrimmage and already moving the other direction. "I figured I might as well jump it," he said. "My eyes got real big." He nearly bobbled his interception away but nobody save teammates followed Culberson into the end zone on his 35-yard scoring return at 13:58.
Defensive points were welcome because State's offense did not take advantage of superior field position in the rest of the half. It took the last turn before intermission to extend the lead as Andrews hit a 33-yard field goal at 1:03. Conner was also picked off as a throw for flanker Will Prosser was tipped and snared by Muhammed Abdullah. But Kentucky did not make use of any first-half opportunity, punting five times and losing the ball on downs twice, including a fake punt immediately swarmed for no gain.
The best UK drive carried to the Bulldog 32-yard line before Clarence McDougal dragged Boyd down for loss of three, and a 4th-and-10 pass got nothing. That set up State's first real scoring drive with Andrews splitting the uprights 1:03 before the break. MSU also faked a punt in the period with Brad Horton tackled for loss of a yard at Kentucky's 35-yard line.
The Wildcat offense actually had the ball five minutes more in the first half, but the Dog defense made it meaningless by sealing off Boyd's option attack and keeping the ball inside the tackles. They had learned lessons from a loss at Vanderbilt well. "We had a mobile quarterback and the plan was to run to the ball," Evans said. "It helped us they started Boyd, we knew we could contain him and make him throw bad passes."
The MSU offense wasn't much better though and nobody scored in the third period, with Norwood fumbling a handoff away and Conner seeing another tipped ball caught by the wrong team. After this turnover Kentucky went with Woodson, with nothing but a missed field goal to show for the change. He would have tossed another pick/six had cornerback Kevin Dockery held on to a tip at the UK 25.
Norwood spun out of one tackle and evaded another to run the ball into range for Andrews to score a three-pointer at 11:35. The 13-0 lead looked good as Kentucky was held on a third down sack, but State made a coverage mistake and an impromptu fake punt produced a Wildcat first down. Boyd threw for 19 yards and ran for the last six yards and a touchdown, though from the perspective of everyone with a view he appeared knee-down at the three.
That left 7:14 to kill and protect the six-point lead. Norwood provided valuable field position with a sprint fo r23 yards, then Cook got the nifty bounce a step off the goal line at 3:34. "We knew they were going to come out throwing, they were down," said Evans. "And we went after them." Boyd never had a chance to evade blitzing middle ‘backer Brown.
"I'm not sure if it was called because Coach got on him on the sideline," Culberson reported. "But it was a great play and helped us win!" Reid's run after the recovered kick assured it and gave State a pair of 100-plus yard backs. Coming after preceeding 201- and 174-yard games, Norwood set a three-game MSU record with 540 total yards.
Still most credit was rightly given to an excellent, winning effort from the defense, with healthy assists from special teams. "We worked hard and as the game went on we wore them down and scored more points," said Culberson, who enjoyed some personal satisfaction at the expense of the team that ended his 2003 season on a broken ankle.
Croom's pleasure was more measured. "I'm proud of our players for finding a way to win despite not playing what I think is as well as we can play," he said. "We did everything you could to lose a game." Things such as pre-snap and post-whistle penalties, turnovers, dropped passes and picks, and just general inconsistency on offense. "Ridiculous stuff," the coach put it. "All in all I'm excited but we've got to get a lot better to have a chance at beating a fine Alabama team."
True enough. But at the same time a second SEC win had Bulldog faces smiling with the flush of renewed success. "Somebody said in the dressing room that Mississippi State is getting that swagger back," said Evans. "We're going to play one game at a time and hope good things happen for us."