Cats bounce back; overcome No. 16 Mississippi State 27-17


Jack Weaver

Kentucky Wildcats running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the No. 22 Kentucky vs. No. 16 Mississippi State football game on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 27-17. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

No. 22 Kentucky football (5-2) bounced back after back-to-back losses, defeating No. 16 Mississippi State (5-2) 27-17 on Saturday.

The win also marked the triumphant return of starting quarterback Will Levis, who played his first game since Oxford two weeks prior, missing Kentucky’s loss against South Carolina with a foot injury.

Levis made the most of his return, completing 17-23 from the field for 230 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception.

“He is a tough player,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said. “He’s a great leader. He has that belief about him because he’s earned it and he’s worked for it.”

Also, having only been sacked once during the contest, the game marked the first of the season in which Levis finished with positive rushing yards, finishing with seven with the sack setting him back 10 yards.

The return was not all good for the likely future first round NFL Draft pick though, with Levis leaving the game in the third quarter after taking a hard hit in the backfield.

He landed hard on his left shoulder and, after being attended to on the field, ran straight to the locker room, avoiding the sideline injury tent altogether.

Miraculously for Kentucky fans, Levis returned not long after, immediately re-taking charge of the offense and going on to lead Kentucky to 21 of its 27 points.

The senior quarterback was lighthearted about the injury, despite wearing a sling after the game, proving his determination to lead his team.

“After I got the X-Rays and they came back negative, I was just ready to go,” Levis said. “I was just hoping to hear good news, which I did. Got the magic shot and just got back out here. It’s my left shoulder so who cares?”

Levis was far from the only name that stood out however, with the spotlight also lighting up veteran running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., who attempted 30 rushes for 196 yards, the second highest single-game total of his collegiate career. With the 196 yards, Rodriguez Jr. surpassed 3,000 career rushing yards at Kentucky.

“He is going to be a very good NFL running back,” offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “I know a lot of scouts who come through here and it’s nice because you’re able to give everyone a real honest opinion about how special of a kid he is. He’s got competitive greatness and I trust him completely. It’s the individual and the talent that makes him so special, he’s a really great guy.”

According to Stoops, the offensive line also had the best game of the season, only allowing one sack and creating holes and blocks for Rodriguez Jr., even on outside rushes.

To make the feat more impressive, the line did so even after losing starting right tackle Jermey Flax, who was returning from an injury he suffered against Ole Miss.

“(The O-Line was) excellent,” Levis said. “Not too many pressures and they got it done in the run game. Especially Deondre Buford for coming in and replacing an injured Jeremy Flax, he’s been working his tail off and for him to come in and execute was huge for us.”

Kentucky’s defense also held tall, holding Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers to just 203 passing yards with one touchdown and one interception. For context, entering the game, Rogers had thrown roughly seven touchdowns for every interception he threw, making UK’s ability to hold him to a one-to-one ratio even more impressive.

The Wildcats also shut down the Bulldogs on the ground, holding Mississippi State to just 22 rushing yards, a testament to the front line of Kentucky’s defense.

“We knew that if we could stop the run and stay with our keys then we can make them one-dimensional,” Kentucky linebacker DeAndre Square said. “It sounds funny because their air raid is what they do, but we knew we still had a good chance.”

The Bulldogs entered the game with passing making up 76.8% of their total offensive output, but with Kentucky’s impressive run defense, Mississippi State received roughly 90% of its offensive yardage from the air raid and only 10% from the ground.

On the other hand, Kentucky, which entered the game with passing making up 74% of its total offensive output, finished with a perfect split, amassing 239 passing yards and 239 rushing yards.

With the win Kentucky has a week off to recover from the nagging injuries that have plagued the team all season.

Following the bye week, the competition doesn’t get any easier, with the Cats traveling to Knoxville to duel current No. 6 Tennessee, who is fresh off a win over No. 3 Alabama.

Kentucky and Tennessee are slated to kick off on Saturday, Oct. 29, inside Neyland Stadium with the start time and airing location to be announced.