"This is one of the most disappointing losses," said senior LB Quinton Culberson, who has experienced plenty of pain in his four seasons. "We should have beat Kentucky…and that's all, we should have beat Kentucky."
But the Bulldogs did not, falling to 2-7, 0-5 SEC, and sealing a sixth-straight losing season. The Wildcats, having had a week-off to heal from a thrashing at LSU, improved to 4-4 and evened their SEC mark at 2-2. "It was a very big win for them," said MSU Coach Sylvester Croom. "And I am disappointed we did not do the things we needed to do to win."
"Especially in front of your home crowd, coming up short like that hurts," QB Mike Henig said. Not that there was much of a crowd at Scott Field, with official attendance 37,834. Only a couple thousand of those wore blue but it was worth their trip to see Kentucky take a second-straight win from State and a fourth in the last five meetings of these permanent SEC opponents.
Wildcat quarterback Andre Woodson threw for three touchdowns and 284 yards in the win, with two of those scoring passes in the first quarter to Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons. It was Burton who hauled in the third TD toss at 13:24 of the fourth quarter for a 31-17 lead that started many of the home fans towards the exits.
But the true difference-maker wasn't a thrower or catcher. Backup tailback Alfonso Smith was the wild card in the Wildcat deck. He came in with just 48 rushing yards in seven games and wasn't even included in the team's game notes bio sketches. He left having run through State for 92 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts. He also caught two passes for 57 yards. Those that mattered all came in the second half.
With the score tied 14-14 coming out of intermission, Smith was on the receiving end of a Woodson throw on 3rd-and-8 that netted 12 yards down to the MSU three-yard line. He got those yards himself with a touchdown dash at 12:45 that put his team in front to stay. A series later his 3rd-and-13 burst for 18 yards kept Kentucky moving far enough to knock a 41-yard field goal through for a 24-17 lead at 5:55.
And when State started the fourth quarter by throwing an interception, Smith again had the big offensive play on third down. Needing three yards, he turned a short catch into a 24-yard gainer to the Bulldog 33-yard line. A snap later Burton shot past CB Derek Pegues and into the end zone to catch the touchdown toss.
Smith showed how timing can matter more than consistency. Kentucky was just 4-of-13 on third downs, but every time the Kats converted they ended up scoring points. And, keeping possession for a total time of 33:47. State was 7-of-14 on third downs yet kept the ball only 26:13.
"We got hurt several times on runs in third-and-long situations," Croom acknowledged. "Guys either missed tackles or ran by the ball trying to get to Woodson. We had chances on third downs to get off the field and didn't."
More galling was how State offset the possession time with fast strikes in the air. QB Mike Henig had the day of his young career, throwing for 384 yards and touchdown strikes of 75, 15, and 36 yards. "We threw the ball and caught the ball and the line blocked great," said Henig. "They didn't blitz too much, they dropped back and played a lot of zone. They left windows and when you get protection you can throw the ball. We had some good plays."
And some bad ones as Henig had two passes picked, though one was a carom off his target's hands. The bigger issue was why State was throwing so often. Against the SEC's lowest-rated ground defense the Bulldogs rushed the ball 24 times (including sacks and scrambles) and netted exactly 24 yards. "I thought we were going to be able to run the ball well against them," Croom said.
To say the least. Henig said Kentucky played a "funky" front and OG Brian Anderson thought this confused the quarterback into making checks to the wrong side. Yet according to the head coach "They did not do anything that surprised us or changed our game plan. We just did not run well." And the backfield pain was more than metaphorical as HBs Brandon Thornton (knee) and Arnil Stallworth (ankle) as well as FB Casey Rogers (knee) were put out along the way.
The Bulldogs didn't come in intending just to run the ball against the last-ranked defense (yardage wise) in the NCAA stats, as Henig hooked up with Burks for 30 yards on the day's opening series. It stopped at the Kentucky 44 before a punt placed the Wildcats on their 18-yard line. On 3rd-and-2 the Dogs did as planned, coming with just a three-man rush and playing coverage. In a foreshadowing of the rest of the afternoon Woodson slipped DT Antonio Johnson to find Lyons open for 32 yards. Woodson converted on 4th-and-inches himself, then went deep for Burton. Pegues mis-timed his jump nad Burton made the easy touchdown catch at 7:38.
State came back with a drive to the Kentucky 37 with a 4th-and-3. Henig had two open targets for enough yards but went to Jamayel Smith, too hard and high. The Wildcats took over for a 63-yard drive that never saw third down and ended with Woodson unloading for Lyons before going down. Lyons made a spectacular grab but seemed to surely have landed out-of-bounds. Kentucky called time and official review showed he had gotten a toe down on the back line.
"I was really shocked at that one," Croom said. "From where I was I never considered there was any question about the play. Obviously I guess I was wrong." And Kentucky led 14-0 at the quarter.
This wasn't going to become a runaway though. When State finally forced a UK punt the offense came to life. HB Anthony Dixon got five yards on first down, then Henig found WR Tony Burks slanting-in and a step in front of the backup cornerback. Burks made the grab at the 35 and was gone for a 75-yard touchdown at 10:21. One snap after the kickoff the Bulldogs got the ball back as Culberson stripped UK's Tony Dixon and recovered the fumble at the 12-yard line.
On 3rd-and-13 Henig loaded up and used every atom of arm-strength to throw at the left pylon where Smith was streaking along the goal line. He made the catch and got a foot down at 8:42 for a 14-14 tie. It stayed that way at the break but not for lack of Kentucky opportunity, as Burks caught then dropped the ball where UK linebacker Wesley Woodyard could recover at State's 27-yard line. The Wildcats got to the 12 before Woodson threw low for Lyons under pressure and CB David Heard intercepted. Before the half ended Kentucky placekicker Lones Siebert missed from 44 yards.
Being even at a SEC-game half was certainly progress for the Bulldogs, who wanted to come out strong. "You always say the first five minutes of the second half is the most important," Henig said. "And they had a good kickoff return." A 47-yard runback by Burton that is, to the MSU 46. Woodson threw to Burton and Lyons for 10 and 19 yards, then on 3rd-and-8 after a delay penalty dumped to Smith for the back's first big conversion play to set up the go-ahead touchdown and 21-14 lead.
"They got us three times on third downs on draw plays and kept driving down the field," Culberson said. "It's not so much him, we had three down linemen and were thinking pass. That's where the yards came from."
The Bulldogs answered somewhat with a 52-yard drive, most of it coming on Bell's 49-yard catch-and-run to the Wildcat 31. But State had to settle for three points as Adam Carlson connected from 45-yards at 10:42. Kentucky got that back with Burton's 46-yard return setting up the field position. On 3rd-and-15 they saw the blitz coming and Smith ran through the vacated zone for the crucial first down.
"We spent extra time than usual on those third-down type situations where we could get off the field," Croom said. "And we still did not make those plays to end drives." This drive ended up with Siebert's 41-yard kick at 5:55 of the third and a 24-17 lead. Then came the back-breaker on the first play of the last quarter, as Burks let the ball go off his hands and into the waiting Woodyard's at the Wildcat 36-yard line. Smith bolted for 23 yards on his last decisive third down before Burton burned down the right sideline for the 31-17 lead.
Henig had three stout conversions of his own in an all-pass drive covering 74 yards in 88 seconds. He went to Smith twice, for 21 and 17 yards, then on 3rd-and-10 at the UK 36 he fired a shot to Burks between two defenders for the touchdown at 11:46. Yet State could not keep Kentucky from re-stretching the margin by three on a 68-yard drive capped by Siebert's 27-yard field goal with 8:08 left.
And this still might well have been sufficient time for a complete comeback, had Henig's long heave for WR Lance Long not been picked off at the UK four-yard line at 6:20. Kentucky used up 2:25 before punting back. The Bulldogs did put seven more points up but also had to use up their last timeout left when TE Jason Husband was stopped at the two-yard line after a 15-yard catch. "We needed to get our big-people package in," Croom explained.
"We knew we had to get it in the end zone there so I guess it was worth a timeout to get the right personnel in," said Henig. But it also took two Anthony Dixon runs to get the score at 2:20, burning an extra 30 or so seconds in the process. So with the clock starting on exchange of possession, even with a substitution penalty on first down, the Wildcats only had to snap three times for all the remaining seconds to run out.
The Bulldogs actually finished with advantages in yards (408 to 390) and per-play gains (6.3 to 5.8). Henig even outplayed his elder counterpart and was never sacked while Woodson went down four times. It didn't matter, and Croom pointed at two crucial plays—Burton's kickoff returns—as one difference. "To me that was the turning point," he said.
"No disrespect to Kentucky, we handed them some nice opportunities today and didn't take advantage of some we had. We had every opportunity to win this football game." But the Bulldogs still didn't win, and unlike last week's three-point loss at Georgia there was no anger from State players. Instead it was a much more subdued sort of frustration. "You've got a sour taste in your mouth," said Hening.