Three and Out: Mississippi State outlasts Kentucky to stay unbeaten
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Around 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, the caravan of Mississippi State team buses rolled down University Ave. toward Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium. The undefeated Bulldogs were at last taking their No. 1 ranking for a ride, having spent the previous weekend on a bye, allowing everyone to wonder how they might handle their new standing: With a clang, or with a thud?
After a 45-31 victory over Kentucky, there might not be easy answers. The Bulldogs clung to a one-score lead entering the fourth quarter, but they ultimately survived behind timely plays from a previously shaky defense and big runs from tailback Josh Robinson. It wasn’t near perfect, but it was a win, and whether that’s enough depends on your perspective.
Here are three quick thoughts from the game:
1. Balance is great, but so is Josh Robinson.
The 5-foot-9 Bulldogs tailback with thighs as thick as sewer pipes will carry the ball. He’ll probably carry a few defenders with him. And, sometimes, he’ll look like a guy who could tow a jackknifed tractor-trailer out of a muddy highway median. Robinson finished with 198 yards on 23 carries, and while Mississippi State justifiably rides quarterback Dak Prescott, its Heisman Trophy candidate, Robinson revved hotter as the engine on Saturday.
The drive that led to a Prescott touchdown and a 24-10 lead in the third quarter was jumpstarted by three straight Robinson runs totaling 34 yards. Then came what was thought to be his highlight of the day: A run where he started to his left, bounced off seven tacklers, then reversed field and bolted around the edge for 22 yards while carrying a few Kentucky tacklers on his back for the last few paces. That fueled the drive that sent Mississippi State up 31-17.
That was thought to be his highlight of the day, however, because the knockout blow came later: Robinson stormed through the line and an arm tackle and then cut back many yards down the field, all the way to a 73-yard touchdown run with 11:46 left to play. It made it 38-24 and seemed to drain all the energy from the place. On its first three touchdown drives, Mississippi State spread its play-calling evenly: 18 rushes, 14 passes. It grew increasingly clear as the day wore on that a little imbalance and a lot of Robinson might have been the better plan all along.
2. Mississippi State’s defense needs to hone its finishing mode.
The Bulldogs’ offense was the unit providing most of the answers on Saturday, while the defense allowed a startling number of big plays that allowed Kentucky to hang around, perhaps longer than it should have. A missed tackle from Mississippi State cornerback Tolando Cleveland led to a 67-yard catch-and-run for the Wildcats’ first score. Then, twice in the third quarter, Prescott and Robinson led Mississippi State to scoring drives that created a two-score lead. And, twice, it took Kentucky less than three and a half minutes to pull back within a touchdown.
Those two third-quarter sequences were particularly huge. They were moments that could have created separation and evacuated belief from the underdog home team’s sideline. Instead, Mississippi State’s defense wilted. But then there were the moments that seemed more auspicious, such as the first drive of the fourth quarter: Kentucky had a chance to pull even after a fourth-down stop, and it went nowhere, sacked twice en route to a three-and-out. It was what good defenses do.
Coming in, the Bulldogs ranked 86th nationally in total defense, last in the SEC. To stand up in even bigger moments than this, the group needs to demonstrate, more consistently, the capacity to squash opponents when needed.
3. The onside kick returned for a touchdown sealed the deal.
Kentucky drew within seven points with a little more than two minutes to play. It also benefited from a Mississippi State personal foul penalty that set up a kickoff from the 50-yard line. An onside kick made sense. Then Kentucky tried it. It watched as Christian Holmes returned the kick 60 yards for a score. It was sad and terrible and glorious all at once, and let us never speak of it again.