The essentials: In spite of playing its best half of football this season against a Southeastern Conference foe, Kentucky lost 28-16 against Mississippi State in front of 57,891 fans in Commonwealth Stadium. Maxwell Smith, in relief of the injured Morgan Newton, and Matt Roark headlined a UK attack that outscored a tough Mississippi State team 10-7 in the second stanza. On three second half drives, UK ran 39 plays for 189 yards and drove into Bulldog territory each time.
Entering Saturday's game, Joker Phillips was 5-0 as a head coach in games his team had won the turnover battle, but that streak ended with tonight's loss. UK forced three MSU turnovers and committed none on offense, but the Cats were forced to settle for field goals in the red zone on three occasions and the Bulldogs had multiple big plays in the passing game.
Entering tonight's game, MSU was averaging just 196.1 yards through the air, but the Bulldogs matched that total in the first half against UK. Rotating Chris Relf and Tyler Russell, Mississippi State managed 264 yards and two touchdowns on just 21 passing attempts. Kentucky set out to stop Mississippi State's bruising running game and the Bulldogs took advantage.
"We were so conscious of the run because that's what they had done against us," Phillips said. "They took advantage of us loading the box up and then hurt us with the pass."
Turning point: The UK defense forced turnovers on two of Mississippi State's first half drives on fumbles. Each time, the Kentucky offense took possession following the turnovers inside the MSU 25. However, the Wildcats managed just a pair of field goals on the two drives, allowing MSU to take a 21-6 lead into halftime.
With how well UK played in the second half, a touchdown on either of those two short-field opportunities in the first could have made things that much more interesting down the stretch, especially since UK kicked another short field goal in the second half.
Player of the game: Entering Saturday's game, Maxwell Smith had completed 7-of-19 passes in his three previous appearances, so when the freshman had to come in for Newton in the first quarter, there didn't seem to be a great deal of hope for moving the ball the rest of the night. Instead, Smith showed the form that had caused his coaches and teammates to rave about his potential and completed an astounding 26-of-33 passes for 174 yards.
"He took some big hits, picked himself off the ground, came back in, stood in there and made some big throws," Phillips said. "I'm proud of him."
The injury to Newton was termed as a high ankle sprain. His status for next week is unknown at this point, but Smith has earned a right to compete for a starting position regardless.
"We have to make some type of a decision, yes," Phillips said. "He played good enough that we got to make a decision on that."
Talking about the freshman, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders ranked him among any quarterback he has worked with in terms of raw ability.
"He's got a lot of arm talent," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "He has the ability to throw the ball, he has the ability to get rid of really quickly and he throws accurately."
Smith's future is bright, especially if he brings the approach he had tonight to practice.
"He's going to continue to get better the more work he gets," Sanders said. "If I can get him to go to the practice field with that same kind of sense of urgency and that same intensity, it will be interesting to see how good he can get."
Smith took his share of hits and nearly had to exit after one particularly hard one in the fourth quarter, but he picked himself up. Sanders expects Smith to experience some soreness when he wakes up in the morning, which could only serve to motivate him more.
"If he's sore, hopefully he'll learn to get it out of there a little quicker," Sanders said. "I hate to say it but pain is a great teacher sometimes."
Unsung heroes: After being snubbed this week on the list of semifinalists for the Butkus Award, Danny Trevathan played arguably his best game of the season. He posted 17 tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception.
"Danny is a warrior," Phillips said. "Danny shows up to play. He's a guy that shows up every week. He's a guy that hurts after every game because he puts so much into this game."
His night is even more impressive when you consider he simply didn't have that many opportunities to make tackles. MSU ran just 53 plays on offense, six of which were incompletions. In other words, Trevathan made 17 tackles on 47 plays (36.2-percent) there was a tackle to be made.
On offense, Matt Roark was the Cats' most effective playmaker, totaling 13 catches for 116 yards, both season highs for any Wildcat receiver. The 13 catches were also tied for the second most in school history. Roark has been maligned at times this year and was actually benched at one point, but has maintained his focus and worked his way into the rotation.
Injury report: Outside of Newton, there were only a couple other injuries. Cornerback Anthony Mosley was hit in the throat during a first half scuffle, forcing him out of the rest of the game with an injured diaphragm. Donte Rumph sustained an injury to his left knee.
What this one means: Falling to 3-5 on the season, the Cats' campaign to extend their six-year bowl streak becomes significantly more difficult with this loss. With four games left on the season all against SEC opponents, UK needs to win three to reach six. UK, though, can take positives from Saturday.
"We made some improvements," Phillips said. "We showed some improvement offensively. Obviously not enough to win this game because we didn't get the ball in the end zone, had to kick three field goals. But it's something that we have to build off of."
Phillips' message to his team at this point is to value the opportunities they still have to play the game they all love.
"Time is precious in this game, very precious," Phillips said. "You only get 60 minutes. We do get to get 60 minutes back on our clock that leads into the next week. We've got to take advantage of the time we have in this game. Yes, we did improve. But there needs to be even more improvement for us to line up and win SEC games."