Sylvester Croom has found his first two seasons working to resurrect the MSU program trying enough, but as he left the Lexington locker room the coach was more frustrated than ever. "This is the first time this year I've been embarrassed," he said.
The causes of such humiliation were entirely obvious. Mississippi State out-gained the Wildcats 375 yards to 324, had a better yards-per-play average, were practically even in possession time, and had only one turnover. And the Bulldogs still lost a game all agreed was theirs for the taking, just as a week before in a home defeat by Houston. This repeated outcome had Croom making blunt post-game comments about MSU's mentality.
"I thought Kentucky played with more intensity and wanted to win the game more than we did," he said. "I thought the way we came out in the first half was absolutely pathetic, we didn't play with any hope, passion, desire, or pride or anything. The bottom line is we've still got some guys that winning is not important to."
That did not apply to a handful of Dogs who gave every second-half effort to salvage victory. Such as halfback Jerious Norwood, who ran for 121 yards on 20 carries and in the process became the all-time rushing leader at Mississippi State. Like last week, though, when he set the MSU game record with 257 yards, it was a bittersweet benchmark. "How many did I have?" he asked. "I guess that's another record, the second-week straight. But like I said last week, we needed to win. I like to win, I don't like to lose."
Nor could quarterback Mike Henig be singled out for harsh evaluation, though it was his failure to secure a basic snap one yard from the UK goal line that became the lone State turnover. Taking over after two struggling series by starter Omarr Conner, the redshirt freshman threw for 200 yards on 16-of-31 passing without an interception. He was under center on State's lone touchdown drive, in the third quarter, and directed another series that should have produced points and could have put MSU on top.
"I had no idea I was going to play until they told me to go in," said Henig. "I guess the coaches just wanted to see what I could do. I was excited. Overall I did pretty good in my progressions and found some open wide receivers."
There were other strong individual efforts, such as a 12-tackle night by linebacker Quinton Culberson, and the combined nine catches of flanker Will Prosser and wideout Tee Milons for 129 total yards. There just weren't enough such performances to offset the same sorts of collective breakdowns that have doomed the Dogs all fall.
Yet when State got the ball back with almost 14 minutes of the fourth quarter still to play and a six-point deficit, the home crowd was uneasy. The Bulldogs, pinned to the one-yard line by a downed punt, strung together a most impressive drive that carried all the way to UK's nine-yard line. Henig scrambled out of his own end zone for 14 yards and one first down, Norwood ran for 27 and 11 yards, and tight end Eric Butler snared a slick throw over the middle for a 27-yard gain.
This only set up more MSU agony, though, because on 3rd-and-four State put Norwood in the slot and pitched to Brandon Thornton. The redshirt had run exceptionally well all second half and scored the Dogs' touchdown on a 19-yard blast. Thornton seemed to have an angle but was dragged down by end Jay Parsons for no gain. "We were hoping they'd think we were trying to throw the ball and starting out I thought we had it," Croom said. "We missed a block and weren't able to make it."
With over eight minutes left State settled for a field goal attempt of just 26 yards' distance, but Adam Carlson—kicking in place of the injured Keith Andrews—bumped the ball wide-right. It was too routine a kick to miss, but as Croom also noted, "We shouldn't have had to go for a field goal, we have to take the ball in for a touchdown."
Instead Kentucky got some breathing room with a 28-yard pass play from Andre Woodson to Keenan Burton, and burned three minutes before punting to State at 4:47. State had to punt it right back three plays later (the ball came loose on the tackle but UK covered it). Yet the Wildcats didn't play the clock well and State had one last chance, though Norwood fair-caught the punt at his own six-yard line at 3:01.
Henig hit Milons and Norwood for 10 and 15 yards, then on 4th-and-15 found Prosser for 20 yards to the Wildcat 46 with two minutes left. "It was a fresh breath of life," Prosser said. "But we couldn't get it done in the end. "The rally died at midfield though, as on 4th-and-six Henig had to hurry a swing throw that Norwood just could not come up with at shin-level.
Missed late-game chances hurt, but the theme was really set earlier when the Dogs gave away first-half opportunities. State's first possession even began on the UK side of midfield, yet after one first down it was squandered. Conner twice evaded pressure and saw open receivers behind coverage with clear passage to the end zone. Both times he overthrew the target, missing Bryson Davis on second down and Eric Butler on third.
It was all the more annoying that State could have gotten the ball given back twice on UK's second series. An end-of-run contact fumble by Beach was ruled down and not reviewed, and linebacker Clarence McDougal had a third-down interception clank off his chestpads. But the Bulldogs couldn't do anything with the pigskin when they did have it on offense and a swap of punts let the Wildcats start from their 28 at 7:28. Woodson dinked and dumped for a couple of first downs, then tailback Rafael Little turned a short screen-catch into a 20-yard gainer to the Bulldog 20-yard line.
Kentucky stopped themselves with consecutive penalties and after Beach was dropped on a draw Taylor Begley came in for a 35-yard field goal at 2:56. When the MSU offense came back onfield, Henig was in the huddle. "We knew he might get in the game," Prosser said. "He did a hell of a job."
Just not at first as that series lasted three snaps. As the second quarter opened Kentucky had 3rd-and-6 on their 39 and Woodson zipped a bullet to tight end Jacob Tamme. On second down at the 30 Little took a delay through the middle for ten more yards, and State gave five free yards away by jumping on first down. Finally with 1st-and-goal at the Bulldog eight Little again took a delay, let the left side open up, and dashed untouched into the end zone. With 10:52 on the clock State trailed 10-0.
And that was the halftime score. Henig directed the Dogs to the UK 30-yard line with fourth down, too far for Carlson to attempt. Wesley Woodyard came in to sack Henig for loss of six. The Wildcats aborted their own drive with a high snap Woodson recovered at midfield. State's other second-quarter turn got into Wildcat territory before another sack stopped things.
"That first half we should have been in control of the game, and we did not," Croom said. One reason was the gameplan forgot about Norwood, with 35 yards in the opening half. The attack changed in the third period for the better as, after Henig hit Tee Milons for 12 yard, Norwood and Thornton combined for six runs and 54 yards all the way to the one-yard line with first-and goal.
Unfortunately the freshman quarterback reverted to, well, a freshman quarterback. With center Chris McNeil needing to snap quickly before a ‘reach' block, Henig simply fumbled it away with Woodyard recovering. "I could shoot myself," Henig said. "It took the momentum."
The turnover hurt even more as Kentucky responded with a 82-yard drive producing three points. Woodson stood in on the blitz to hit Little on the left sideline for a gain of eight yards, and a late hit by Derek Pegues added 15 more. Back Arliss Beach went left end for 16 yards to midfield, and on a flea-flicker Woodson hit Glenn Holt for a catch-and-run good for 22 yards to State's 27. Beach bounced off four arm-tackles for another first down. It took a couple of incompletions, one a questionable call to say the least, to force a field goal that Begley made good on from 33 yards at 7:53.
Now down 13-0 the Dogs absolutely had to score to keep this a game, and did with a seven-play, 76-yard drive. Henig ducked under a blitz to find Milons for 23 yards and Norwood took a draw handoff for 18 more. On 2nd-and-5 Thornton juked around right tackle, got a block at the 15 from Long, and crashed through safety Roger Williams at the goal line. Carlson's PAT pulled State within 13-7 at 4:47.
But that was all the Bulldog scoring, though they briefly appeared to catch a game-changing break when the ensuing kickoff return was fumbled. Repay proved the ball came loose on ground-contact. The Wildcats didn't score but did burn ground and time, helped by some deadball personal fouls on Dogs Titus Brown and Kevin Dockery. "Stupid football," Croom said, "there's absolutely no excuse for it." Finally Derek Pegues knocked the ball loose from Beach for Jeramie Johnson to recover near midfield, but Wildcat Myron Pryor halted any threat by sacking Henig on third down, set up the frustrating final quarter.
"This was a winnable game for us," Prosser said. "It's on the road in the SEC, but who cares? It's a game we're supposed to play hard and win, and we had our opportunities. We didn't capitalize, and that's what we've been doing all year. On offense, anyway."
Woodson had an effective evening with 13-of-27 passing for 141 yards and no picks, while Little kept the attack balanced with his 114 rushing yards on 24 carries. Still the Bulldogs recovered from the awful first quarter and ended up with better overall numbers. "I thought we had it all clicking together and did some good things," Henig said.
Just not enough to win, a song Croom is heartily sick of singing this season. This loss, though, was more embarrassing than any before. "This is a SEC road game and we still have guys that it doesn't bother them to lose," Croom said, flatly. "That's the bottom line. We have a lot of guys that want to win, a lot of our young players want to win, but we have too many that we have to play right now because of the situation we are in. I won't call out names but I know who they are and I won't ever forget."
For their part the Bulldogs will try to forget another one that got away and prepare for the coming weekend's home contest with league-leading Alabama. The contest will even be shown on CBS, and Croom has put his players on notice that their efforts will be witnessed by more than just their coach.
"Are we going to play give-up or play one of the best teams in the country in a fashion it takes to win the game?"