Kentucky snaps slump, beats Mississippi State 27-17

Published: Oct. 15, 2022 at 10:58 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WYMT/UK Athletics) - Chris Rodriguez Jr. rushed for 196 yards and two touchdowns as No. 22 Kentucky topped 16th-ranked Mississippi State 27-17 on Saturday night at Kroger Field.

For Rodriguez, it was the second-highest rushing total of his Kentucky career. He also eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark in career rushing in Saturday’s win, becoming the fourth player in school history to reach that number.

Kentucky (5-2, 2-2 SEC) saw quarterback Will Levis connect on 17 of his 23 passes for 230 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Levis briefly exited the game with a left shoulder injury but only missed part of one series.

The Cats also got a big effort on the defensive side of the ball. UK held the Bulldogs well below their 37.5 points per game average and became just the second team this season to hold MSU under 30 points. DeAndre Square led the defensive attack with 11 tackles and an interception in the game.

Mississippi State (5-2, 2-2) took the opening kickoff and quickly crossed midfield. But the Cats’ defense would force a punt, and UK would take over at its own 20.

Kentucky took the ball and was able to advance into Mississippi State territory. However, when Levis connected with Rahsaan Lewis, it appeared to be enough for the first down. Instead, Lewis was stripped and MSU recovered at its own 36 with 7:45 left in the first.

MSU was forced to punt on its next possession and the Cats appeared to have the game’s first big play. Barion Brown took the punt and raced down the right sideline for an apparent touchdown. But the Cats were flagged for a block in the back, negating Brown’s big effort.

Kentucky appeared to be stopped on its next possession before Levis hit Dane Key down the left sideline on a 31-yard completion, taking UK near midfield. Later in the possession, the Cats would convert a fourth-and-one on a Levis quarterback sneak. But a couple of penalties set Kentucky back and the Cats were set to punt as the scoreless first quarter expired.

MSU would break the scoring drought on its next drive. The Bulldogs would cover 57 yards in 13 plays and would get a 48-yard field goal from Massimo Biscardi to take a 3-0 lead with 8:24 to play in the first half.

Kentucky would sustain a drive on its next possession, riding on the back of Rodriguez, who carried for 27 yards on the drive. UK would face a fourth-and-eight from the 33 and would attempt a 51-yard field goal by Matt Ruffolo. The kick had the distance but sailed wide left and the score remained 3-0.

MSU took over with 1:52 to play in the half and the Bulldogs were looking for points in their two-minute offense. The Bulldogs would advance to the Kentucky side of the field but the Cats’ defense again stood tall and, on fourth-and-eight from the UK 35, Will Rogers’ pass was too tall for his receiver and UK took over with 47 seconds to play in the half.

Kentucky would take advantage of the final possession. The Cats, with the help of a couple of MSU penalties, got into the Bulldogs’ red zone but would not be able to get into the end zone. Ruffolo would be called upon again, and would convert from 28 yards out, tying the game 3-3 with four seconds left in the half. That would be the halftime score.

The Cats would get the opening possession of the second half and the Cats advanced into MSU territory quickly, but at a cost. Levis hit Brown on a 33-yard completion. However, Levis injured his left shoulder on the play and was forced out of the game. Backup quarterback Kaiya Sheron entered as the Cats got into the MSU red zone. But the drive stalled and Ruffolo was called on for a field goal, this one from 36 yards out, which Ruffolo converted, giving the Cats a 6-3 lead with 11:34 left in the third quarter.

MSU would answer with a drive that produced the game’s first touchdown. The Bulldogs would cover 75 yards in eight plays and would end when, on fourth-and-one from the one, Rogers connected with tight end Austin Williams in the front corner of the end zone for the score. Biscardi added the PAT and Mississippi State led 10-6 with 8:28 left in the third quarter.

Levis returned on the next drive, when the Cats when back to the ground game. Kentucky gave the ball to Rodriguez on four consecutive plays, the fourth of which was a 47-yard scamper that put the senior over 100 yards for the game and got the Cats to the MSU eight.

From there, UK tried Rodriguez three times but he was not able to get into the end zone. Then, on fourth-and-goal from the MSU three yard line, Levis connected with Lewis for a touchdown, the first of Lewis’ career. Ruffolo added the PAT and Kentucky led 13-10 with 4:10 left in the third quarter.

The third period would end with the Cats holding a 13-10 advantage.

MSU would be forced to punt on its next possession, and the Cats would take advantage. Kentucky would cap off the seven-play, 80-yard scoring drive with two spectacular plays. First, Levis connected with JuTahn McClain on a sidearm pass thrown between two defenders, a play that McClain took for 31 yards. On the next play, Rodriguez ran left, broke two tackles, and found the end zone for another UK touchdown. Ruffolo added the PAT and the Cats had a 20-10 lead with 11:43 to play.

The Kentucky defense would force another MSU punt on the next possession, and things went from bad to worse for the Bulldogs on that punt. Backup punter George Georgopoulos shanked it off the side of his foot, resulting in a four-yard punt that gave Kentucky the ball at the MSU 45 with 10:14 to play in the game.

The Cats seemed to be ready to put the game away with a solid drive. In fact, UK went for it on fourth-and-eight from the MSU 43. But on the play, MSU’s Emmanuel Forbes cut off the route of Chauncey Magwood and intercepted Levis at the MSU 41. Forbes raced untouched to the end zone for a touchdown that got MSU back in the game with 8:33 to play. Biscardi added another point after, making it 20-17 Kentucky.

Kentucky would answer on its next drive when Levis hit Lexington’s own Dekel Crowdus with a 50-yard completion down the left sideline. On the next play, Rodriguez would bull his way into the end zone for his second score of the night, essentially sealing the game for the Cats. Ruffolo added the PAT and UK led 27-17 with just 5:30 to play.

On MSU’s next drive, Square picked off Rogers and the Cats took over in MSU territory. The Cats would be able to run out the clock from there.

Kentucky will take next Saturday off before returning to action on Oct. 29 at Tennessee. The kickoff time and television network for that game have not yet been determined.

Kentucky-Mississippi State final stats
Kentucky-Mississippi State final stats(StatBroadcast)

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.

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.

(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.

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.

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.

(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.

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.)

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.

(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.

(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.

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.

(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.

(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.

(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.

(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.

(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.

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.

(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.