If you have watched the University of Kentucky play football the last two weeks, your expectations of Saturday night’s game vs. Mississippi State probably weren’t too high.
However, a mixture of passion from the home team and intensity from the home crowd lifted the Wildcats up for a momentum-shifting win over the Bulldogs, 27-17.
The Kentucky Wildcats had lost two straight games and entered their matchup with the Bulldogs as four-point home underdogs. Their season was on the cusp of taking a turn for the worst. But Will Levis and company refused to go down without a fight.
The first half was a defensive showcase with both teams tied at three through two quarters. While the second half also had its share of defensive plays, there were also some fireworks.
Kentucky cashed a field goal to start the third quarter and take a 6-3 lead. However, Mississippi State answered with a touchdown drive and took a 10-6 lead for themselves.
The Bulldogs did lead during Saturday’s game, but not for long. Kentucky ripped off back to back touchdown drives to conclude the third quarter and take a commanding 20-10 advantage.
The fourth quarter also saw big plays be made, specifically a pick six score by Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes that cut Kentucky’s lead to three. But another touchdown drive by the Wildcats and a game-sealing interception from veteran linebacker DeAndre Square was enough to give Kentucky their first win in three weeks.
Levis finished the night completing 17-13 passes for 230 yards, a touchdown and an interception. While Kentucky loved having Levis back in the fold, Saturday’s big spotlight was a season-best game from Chris Rodriguez. The Wildcats’ star running back had 30 carries for 196 yards and two scores. He put the team on his back and took pressure off an injured Kentucky offensive line as he gashed up the Mississippi State defense.
Here’s what head coach Mark Stoops had to say following the win.
MARK STOOPS: Much better feeling this week than last week at this time. So, really proud of our team, obviously. As I told the team, I didn’t know the outcome going into this game, but I knew we would play like that. I knew we would play like we play; tough, resilient, together, and play hard like we do. And I knew we would respond.
And, again, didn’t know the outcome. Couldn’t predict that. And there’s things that happened in that game that none of us could have predicted. But surely proud of our team the way adversity came and went, and we responded.
A team effort. Put it together in all phases when we had to. Sure, there’s things to clean up, like always, like any team. But overall, just a great team victory. I thought our coaches had a good plan. I thought, surely, there’s things that we could do over and call over and, you know, replace a few calls.
But in general, we had a really good plan on both sides. And the players were just — I just greatly appreciate the players and their attitude and the way they prepared.
The way, you know, all of our pride was hurt just a week ago, just by the way we played. And, like I said, you’re going to have some wins, you’re going to have some losses.
The results are what they are. It’s all about preparation and the way you play. And, again, I felt really good about the response for our team.
I have to say before I forget and get into questions, that I cannot thank our fan base enough. We’ve had a lot of home games. We’ve had some ups and some downs. Came back this week again pulling in, seeing the people, seeing the tailgating, seeing the packed stadium, hearing them, staying till the end, cheering like they did. Thank you. Amazing.
It was a great night. The bye comes at a good time for us right now. The players need some time to heal up. It’s difficult going that many straight games. We need to get some rest and get to work and clean up a lot of mistakes. I’ll open it up for questions.
Q. Mark, how do you know you were going to get this kind of performance?
MARK STOOPS: I just felt — you know, after the game, I told you, I challenged them. I took probably a different approach in the locker room last week.
But they deserved it. You know, the truth is the truth. And we all have to share in that responsibility when things go wrong. And I felt like they would respond. I felt good about it all week.
But, again, they’re beat up and hurting in certain ways. But, you know, probably more than anything, their pride was hurt. And so, they responded in the right way. So I felt pretty good that we played again with the energy and passion and toughness that we play with.
Q. (No microphone.)
MARK STOOPS: Probably so. You know, I felt like our conditioning and depth probably helped. I think our guys were really strong when they needed to be, and that helped.
Q. Mark, talk about Will’s toughness and the tone he sets for the rest of your team.
MARK STOOPS: You know, it’s hard to give it the recognition that it deserves. Because he is a tough player. And he’s a great leader. And, you know, he has that belief about him, you know that — because he’s earned it. He’s worked for it.
And as I mentioned, you know, before with the victory, you know, you see it now. But it’s really what you see, not all the work that goes into it. And that’s a guy that prepares and works and leads the team.
Q. When he went to the locker room, did you know he was coming back?
MARK STOOPS: I did not. I did send somebody in to get me a quick word back, though. I had to send somebody. I wasn’t waiting on Gabe to give me the result. So I sent a little birdie in and the little birdie said that the x-ray was negative and that I knew with that guy, being that it was a non-throwing shoulder, that if it wasn’t broke, he’d be back out there. And sure enough, he was.
Q. (No microphone.)
MARK STOOPS: It was very important. And I thought the coaches had a nice game plan. We had to get into some bigger sets because they do a lot of things, a lot of pressures, as you have seen.
And they had a great one tonight. They created a lot of points off turnovers. So I thought our big sets in the running game really helped us.
Q. You talk every week — every coach talks about being balanced. And you guys had the perfect balance tonight. I think 239 and 239.
MARK STOOPS: Wow. Didn’t know that. That’s a good balance. (Laughing.)
Q. Coach, I spoke to you on Thursday and I asked about, you know, how you guys plan to slow down Will Rogers at quarterback. And you said it was a million-dollar question. He had his lowest total in yards in the season tonight and only threw one touchdown after having games of three and six. So, again, I’m going to ask you: How did you slow down Will Rogers tonight?
MARK STOOPS: Team effort. Team effort. The offense possessed the ball. Not that that’s our total game plan when we play people like that. But getting first downs, moving the chains, you know, scoring points. It’s all important.
And defensively, had some big stops. I thought that they had a great game plan. Brad did a great job. Defensive coaches did a great job. And, you know, mixed it up well. Our players executed. And, you know, it was really a team effort.
Q. (No microphone.)
MARK STOOPS: Well, I just wanted to make sure we set the tone immediately in that locker room. Because I tried to a week ago and I didn’t do a very good job. And I tried. First thing I did when I walked in. You know what I mean? And I could just tell.
I talked to every coach on the headset on the offensive side and the defensive side and I said, first thing, before you go make your adjustments, get your guys, talk to them first quickly. Get them right, get their minds right. Because I didn’t like the way we responded a week ago. And we did a much better job responding in the second half.
So we all talked to the team, got them right, got their mind right, got them in their groups, and then went and made our adjustments and came back and talked to the players.
Q. (No microphone.)
MARK STOOPS: I’m not — you’re saying that. I’m not. You know, I’m just — I don’t want to overcoach. I don’t want to overthink that. You know what I mean? It’s just — I don’t know if it’s ever the right words or not. I think the work is done throughout the week. You try.
But if you’re trying and you’re not feeling it, it’s probably too late. Our team was in a good spot. We responded. Our coaches made good adjustments and our players executed.
Q. I know you haven’t seen the video. But was this the offensive line’s best game?
MARK STOOPS: I think it’s pretty fair to say at this point, yeah. Because that’s a really good defense. You know, they’re really disruptive and they do a really good job in creating pressure. And I thought they really did some good things.
Q. (No microphone.)
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, Rahsaan and Chauncey both had some opportunities. And we have faith in both of them. And, you know, he did — he responded well after the fumble. It was a tough break because he really had some good yards after the catch. He was getting some stuffed runs and sometimes that happens when you get stood up like that and they rip the ball out.
You know, and then the drop on the screen was a little bit troublesome for me too. But overall, he really did a good job. It was nice to see him get that score.
I was really close to calling a time-out and I’m glad I didn’t. I just went with my instincts and trusted Will. Wasn’t the look we thought with that play, but I trusted Will to get it in there.
Q. (No microphone.)
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it was really good for Dekel. It was real — you know, when you’re in tough games like this, sometimes we — you know, the receivers, they all want the ball. And running backs and all that.
And so, I think we learned from a week ago against a tough, hard-fought SEC-ranked opponent, you got to do what you have to do. And you don’t know that one play. And I said it last week, too, but it didn’t matter.
I said, ‘Hey, stay with it’. That one catch can make the difference in the game. And I’m glad he came up with it today.
Q. (Question concerning penalties.)
MARK STOOPS: You know, it’s hard to say. I mean, we were — I believe we were the — I got to — I didn’t check this week. I think we’re still the least penalized team.
And it was uncharacteristic a little bit early. And, you know, some penalties are going to happen. Aggressive penalties. The pre-snap penalties are hard to tolerate. And we got to buckle down and do a better job with that.
Because some of the best teams in the country are leading them. So penalties aren’t always the indicator. When you’re an aggressive team, sometimes you’re going to get it. The pre-snap, can’t happen.
Q. (No microphone.) How important was the way that Trevin and D’Eryk played in Jacquez’s absence tonight?
MARK STOOPS: It’s always important playing these guys. And the linebackers are in stressful positions. They do such a good job in the pass game. They’re running it more efficiently this year — not more efficiently. They’re always efficient. They’re more committed to running it, so they’re keeping you off-balance.
So, you know, you got to make a lot of plays in space. And, you know, we made great improvement this year over last year when we went down there. And there was a lot of yards after catch. And, you know, we improved a great deal on that.
Q. (No microphone.)
MARK STOOPS: Well, I think, you know, there was some plays in there he was aggravated, I was aggravated, you know, that you’d like over, you’d like to execute better. There was a lot of things.
But, again, I thought the coaches had a great plan. And there’s certainly some plays and some timing that you would like to do some things over, you know?
You know, and I think we learned. And he will learn, you know, as you continue to grow and continue to compete in this league.
Q. Yeah, Mark at the end of the half, it looked like you and Rich went back and forth after the QB draw with Will. Was it more of you just didn’t want him running the ball? Was it a clock management thing?
MARK STOOPS: I don’t recall which play. I think we were talking — I believe you’re talking about I had to use my last time-out, if I’m not mistaken.
And we were discussing plays, obviously, because with the way they pressure, if we get tackled and bounced, it’s over. You know what I mean? You’re not going to get any points.
So, I don’t know. There was no — that’s just coaching. I don’t remember anything, honestly. But, you know, I’m sure I got — I think people will say, Why didn’t you run another play? We had nine seconds. You know, they played — the play prior to that, they played it really well.
I didn’t want to force something, get a pick. I felt, again, going in tied this time compared to last week, we get the ball to start the second half. And we did drive down and get three and got ahead. I thought that was really important. It outweighed the risk of taking a sack or getting, you know, an interception or turning it over and deflating our team.
Q. (Question concerning Matt Ruffolo.)
MARK STOOPS: Sure it was. You know, sure it was. And, again, you — again, I have confidence in him. He does it all the time and he needs to get out there and do it and it’s good for him to hit some.