By LARRY VAUGHT
Doesn’t matter if the talent level at Kentucky has improved because to win games players still have to make plays — and Kentucky didn’t do enough of that at Mississippi State Saturday.
It started when quarterback Sawyer Smith, making his first SEC road start, threw an interception that was returned for a score.
“You just can’t start that way. We were off to a good start and felt comfortable,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said after his team’s 28-13 loss. “It just never felt the same from that moment on. It was a tough way to start.”
It continued when Lynn Bowden dropped two likely touchdown passes and Ahmad Wagner dropped one. Then redshirt freshman kicker Chance Poore — who missed a potential game-winning field goal last week against Florida — missed two more.
Throw in missed tackles, key penalties and pressure on Sawyer Smith too often and UK just couldn’t overcome its own poor start.
“I didn’t feel like we were very physical to start the game. The inexperience in the secondary is hurting us. Just have to play better. Bottom line. We have got to improve,” Stoops said. “We have to tidy it up across the board with everybody.”
The most disappointing part was the way UK played — or didn’t play — the first half. After the interception return for a score, the Cats got pushed around and just did not look focused. It was a point I thought Stoops had been able to move UK football past but I was wrong.
“We have to find our leaders, find what is right and get this thing going,” running back A.J. Rose, who had 105 yards on only nine carries, said. “We have to play hard, compete. We didn’t play at the level we are supposed to in the first half. Then we didn’t have time in the second half to come back.”
Kentucky was behind 21-3 at halftime, cut the lead to 21-10 and had a first down inside the Mississippi State 10. Not only could UK not get the touchdown, it blew the chip shot field goal.
Down 28-13 with just under five minutes to go, UK couldn’t stop true freshman quarterback Garrett Shrader from breaking a 49-yard run on third and four to set up the game-clinching touchdown. He ran 11 times for 125 yards and completed 17 of 22 passes for 180 yards with just one interception in his first start.
Stoops didn’t want any part of hearing that last week’s loss to Florida took a toll on his team.
“I just didn’t like the way we played as a team in the first half. Defensively we were off balance. Offensively we were driving and not finish. Dropping passes. Just didn’t play very good and on the road against a good team you can’t do that,” Stoops said.
“No excuses. No hangover. We just didn’t play good.You just have to come in and play well and we didn’t do that. It just wasn’t clean. We didn’t play our best and you can’t do that against this team.”
Well, you can but then you lose despite having the defense eventually make some key stops and force turnovers, Smith playing through the pain of a banged up shoulder the second half, Bowden making some sensational plays when he didn’t drop the ball and Rose gashing the State defense.
Kentucky just dug a huge hole with its uninspired play the first half and it cost the Cats a chance to win a game again.