Cats ‘dogged’ by Mississippi State 28-16

Coming off its first win in close to a month, the UK football team was optimistic for its “blackout” game Saturday night against Mississippi State.

That optimism quickly vanished as MSU jumped out to an early lead it would never relinquish, defeating UK 28-16.

UK’s game plan on offense was thrown for a loop early when starting quarterback Morgan Newton first left the game first with a right shoulder injury, then later for good with what head coach Joker Phillips suspects is a high right ankle sprain. That left freshman Maxwell Smith to command the offense for the majority of the game.

Despite facing a top-20 defense nationally and almost no notice before being inserted into the game, Smith held his own against the Bulldogs to the tune of 26-33 for 174 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. All things considered, Smith’s performance was one of the better, if not the best performance under center UK has had all season long.

“It started off a little shaky, and I actually messed up two plays,” Smith said. “After that, I was good. My nerves definitely settled down, and I played pretty good.”

But as Phillips and UK continued to trade field goals for MSU touchdowns, the spread began to widen.

With just over eight and a half minutes remaining in the third quarter, UK ventured into the Bulldogs’ red zone for the third time, trailing 21-6. Phillips chose to settle for a third field goal on fourth down, cutting the lead to 12, rather than risking a chance at a first down and potentially a touchdown later in the drive. With the score at 21-9, both UK and MSU had scored three times on the evening- MSU with three touchdowns opposed to Craig McIntosh’s three field goals for UK. That 12-point differential would stand to be the difference in the final score.

“I did consider it,” Phillips said. “We needed some points, down 21-6. It was still early in the second half is the reason why we decided to kick the field goal, because it was early in the second half. We thought we’d have more opportunities.”

Early in the fourth quarter, sophomore running back Jonathan George took a carry four yards for the Cats’ only touchdown of the evening. With the score at 28-15 and the extra point awaiting, UK could have attempted a two-point conversion to cut the difference to 11. With an 11-point differential, as opposed to 12, UK would have only needed one touchdown (with a two-point conversion) and one field goal as opposed to two touchdowns.

Instead, UK elected to kick it for one point, a move that would later impact UK’s final drive of the night.

Late in the fourth quarter, UK drove inside the MSU 20-yard line with its eyes on a comeback. Had UK even attempted to cut the lead to 11, the Cats would have had the option of settling for a field goal if a fourth down was forced. Eventually it was, but UK failed at the fourth-down conversion, costing the team a chance at a victory.

When asked about the situation following the game, Phillips seemed confused, then said the thought to go for two never crossed his mind, citing he never wanted to attempt a two-point conversion before the fourth quarter (UK scored its only touchdown with 13:50 remaining in the fourth).

“No,” Phillips said. “We wanted to try to wait till we got in the fourth quarter to go for two.”

Offensively, Smith was able to find a comfort zone in senior wide receiver Matt Roark, who has struggled at times this season. The popular scapegoat by fans frustrated with UK’s ineptitude passing the football caught 13 passes (half of Smith’s completions for the game) for 174 yards, providing a reliable underneath target for the inexperienced freshman.

“It felt good to have a good game and have some career firsts for me, but it was a loss, so I’m still down about that,” Roark said, “and I will be for a while.”

CoShik Williams experienced success rushing the ball against MSU for the second week in a row, rushing for 67 yards on 15 carries.

Defensively, the Cats were able to slow down the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, but it was the passing of both Tyler Russell and Chris Relf that burned UK.Combined, the two MSU quarterbacks finished the game 15-21 for 164 yards and two touchdowns. UK was led on defense by senior linebacker Danny Trevathan, whose 17 tackles, forced fumble and interception against MSU helped the Cats win the turnover battle for the first time in conference play.

“I just want to be a great leader and create great players,” Trevathan said. “I just want to play with these guys and create great memories. I just want to be the best player that I can be and try to stay humble and put my best foot forward.”

UK is joined by Tennessee and Ole Miss as the lone winless teams in the SEC. UK will get a shot at Ole Miss next Saturday at home, in a battle of what some consider the two worst teams in the conference.

Phillips said after Smith’s performance against MSU, and Newton’s health in question, the quarterback position would be an open competition this week for the game against the Rebels.

“Usually the backup quarterback, especially a young backup quarterback, he needs to get hit a couple times till he starts paying a little more attention, starts to prepare himself like he’s a starter,” Phillips said. “I think Maxwell will do that because he’s going to have an opportunity to compete for the starting job.”