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Bowl eligibility within reach after win over Mississippi State

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, but the Wildcats may just have a shot at a bowl this year

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It was a tale of two halves when Kentucky squared off against Mississippi State on Saturday night in Lexington.

The game started with a missed field goal from 28 yards out by Austin MacGinnis, and things didn't get any better as Stephen Johnson sprayed errant pass after errant pass all around the field.

It all added up to a 14-6 halftime deficit, but it didn't stay that way. In the second half, Johnson got into a groove, Jeff Badet put all his past flashes of promise together into a career night, and MacGinnis redeemed himself, drilling a 51-yard field goal at the gun to win it 40-38.

With the win, fueled by the three unlikely heroes, Kentucky improved to 4-3 on the year (after an 0-2 start) and grabbed sole possession of second place in the SEC East.

As you might expect, in a back and forth game like this, there were things that went well for Kentucky and things that didn't. We'll start with a look at what worked.

Offense -€” Kentucky came into the night averaging 374 yards per game. Against the Bulldogs, they exploded for 554. Johnson and Badet were a big part of that effort, with 139 of Johnson's 292 yards and both touchdowns going to the junior receiver.

For Johnson - whose 292 yards were almost as many as he'd thrown for in his last four outings combined (318) - his ability to deliver in the clutch was a huge boost for a team that had struggled in the first half, even opening the game with a drop of what should've been a routine pitch and catch.

Despite that ominous start, Johnson's last throw of the night went to Badet for 18 yards and set up the game-winning kick. Those yards were the last of Badet's career-high total in a breakout game that coaches have been waiting to see.

Kicking Game -€” Despite the miss on the Wildcats opening drive, MacGinnis was good when called upon for the rest of the night. He hit from 46, 32 and 32 before drilling the game-winner that probably would've been good from 55.

If Kentucky hopes to play in a bowl game, they could ill afford to lose a home game to a two-win team, so it's safe to say that MacGinnis' last kick saved their season.

While the offense was putting up numbers Kentucky fans haven't seen in a while and MacGinnis was drilling kicks all night, there were some things that need improvement.

Defense -€” Kentucky limited the Bulldogs to just 81 yards passing, but gave up 281 on the ground. The 38 points they surrendered were six above the 32 they already average giving up each game.

And that included giving up a touchdown with 1:07 to play that put them behind 38-37. They did help the winning effort by returning an interception 45 yards for a score.

Turnovers -€” The Wildcats had two on the night, with Johnson fumbling twice and losing both. His second fumble proved costly as the Bulldogs returned it 81 yards for a score that allowed them to pull within 34-31 with 9:33 to play and gain some momentum.

Just as the defense must find ways to slow opposing offenses more than they have, if Kentucky wants to become bowl eligible, they must protect the ball better.

At 4-3, Kentucky is two wins away from the six they need to become bowl eligible. There are some tough tests coming up, including a closing game at Louisville - who, sure, are beatable - but let's hope it doesn't come down to that.

Beyond them though, there is not unbeatable foe. Kentucky has five total games left to play, if they can improve defensively, limit turnovers and continue to get solid performances from Johnson, Badet and MacGinnis, they have a good shot at reaching postseason play for the first time since 2010.