The Kentucky Wildcats walked onto the field in Starkville, needing a win in the worst way. Dropping four in a row would have been catastrophic, considering the high hopes this team had in the preseason.
The Cats weren’t the only ones desperate for a victory. At 4-4, MSU entered Saturday night’s game highly motivated to break over the .500 mark in front of their home crowd.
The tension came early and often in the first half as the officials had to pull both teams together for a warning multiple times. Kentucky was the clear aggressor, laying some monster hits and even punching in a defensive score.
UK took a commanding 21-3 lead into the break, making it clear that Mark Stoops had his team ready to play on the road in a hostile environment.
It was refreshing to see Devin Leary make a point to get some of his weapons on the outside involved early on.
Dane Key had a first-half touchdown grab, and both Tayvion Robinson and Barion Brown were actively involved throughout the game.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest stories of the night would be Devin Leary leaving with an injury. His status heading into next week will be critical for UK’s chances to hang with Alabama.
But next week is next week. Tonight, Kentucky fans can rejoice in a solid road win that kept the wheels on this season.
Here are five things to know from win No. 6.
Kentucky dominated from start to finish
Kentucky made sure to set the tone early and effectively ended the game on the first two drives. The game began with the defense forcing a Bulldogs three-and-out, followed by the offense marching down the field for six, a point total Mississippi State would not reach.
Any result other than walking away victorious would have been crippling to this football team. The term “must-win” is used so often in college football, but as far as the 2023 season goes, tonight’s game in Starkville really was about as crucial as it gets.
Considering Mark Stoops has never won on the road at Mississippi State and the desperation that the Bulldogs played with, you have to tip your cap to everyone involved for having the Cats ready to answer the bell.
There wasn’t really a moment in the game when you felt like Kentucky was going to let this one slip away. In fact, the Kentucky defense scored more points than the Bulldogs did as a team, which is something I don’t think anyone saw coming after what the Cats defense looked like during their three-game skid.
A dominant performance was something this team needed, and both sides of the ball delivered.
Devin Leary exits the game
In the fourth quarter, UK backup QB Kaiya Sheron entered the game, creating some confusion in terms of the status of Devin Leary, who was spotted in the injury tent. At the end of the game, it was still uncertain exactly what was going on with Leary, and obviously, his status for next week will be of utmost importance.
After the game, Mark Stoops was vague when asked but mentioned that Leary got something in his eye and would be evaluated.
Welcome back, Brad White
After giving up an average of 40 points per game in the month of October, Brad White’s defense was able to settle in against MSU, holding them to 218 yards and three points.
Granted, the opposing offense was down several key players, including their starting quarterback. But let’s not take away from the aggressive, hard-hitting play we saw from UK’s defense tonight after starting off a little shaky.
D’Eryk Jackson’s first-half pick-six stole every ounce of momentum that was up for grabs inside Davis Wade Stadium.
One constant for UK football over the past several seasons is faith that Brad White’s defense will hold true and give the Cats a fighting chance.
Making this win even better was White’s unit shut down Mike Wright, who helped lead Vanderbilt to a shocking win over the Cats last season in Lexington, making tonight’s win a bit of revenge as well.
Saying this, White will have his work cut out for him with UK’s remaining three opponents.
BAMA is coming to town
No matter what the outcome of tonight’s game was, the biggest story leaving Starkville was always going to be Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide scheduled to make their way to Lexington for a noon kickoff next weekend.
#8 Alabama had a blockbuster matchup on Saturday night against #14 LSU on the road. The game was tied 21-21 at the break.
Then Bama would do what they do and lay the hammer down to get an impressive win.
Obviously, the Cats don’t get the chance to play Alabama from the West division all that often, so there will be some cool vibes welcoming the biggest show in college football to the Commonwealth.
If I’m being honest, ESPN’s matchup predictor giving Kentucky a 12.7% chance at winning is more favorable than I would have expected. It’ll be a tall task to beat Coach Saban and the Tide, but anything is possible, especially playing at Kroger Field.
But the postseason is secure
It took a while after Kentucky started 5-0, but the Cats finally got to six wins and won’t have to sweat out these last three games regarding the postseason.
In fact, Kentucky is bowl-eligible for the eighth straight season, which is a program record. That’s a big testament to what Mark Stoops has built after inheriting the mess Joker Phillips left.
Now, let’s celebrate win No. 6!