By BRAD LOCKE / NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State keeps passing the gut checks and keeps winning.
The No. 23-ranked Bulldogs won their sixth game in a row, holding on to down Kentucky 24-17 in front of 54,168 at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday night.
The offense found new life at the right time, and the defense continued its durably flexible ways to preserve the victory. MSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC) reached seven wins for just the second time since 2000, which was also the last time it was over .500 in SEC play.
MSU didn’t secure the win until the final seconds. Kentucky drove from its own 10-yard line with 5 minutes, 8 seconds to go and worked it downfield with a nice mixture of pass and run.
But once the Wildcats (4-5, 1-5) reached the Bulldogs’ 20, they hit a roadblock. Mike Hartline threw four straight incompletions, the last one an interception by cornerback Johnthan Banks at the 1-yard line with 31 seconds left.
It was Hartline’s third interception of the game.
“That’s a situation that we feel very comfortable in,” MSU defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “We’re in the same boat at Florida, and the whole mindset on that drive is, nothing matters until they cross that goal line.
“And we’re mixing up pressure and coming from different places, and we figure at some point during that drive, we’re going to get you.”
State’s last three wins have come by 15 total points.
So MSU heads into a bye week feeling pretty good about itself. When asked about bowl-game possibilities, coach Dan Mullen set his sights as high as possible.
“We’re trying to make a run at Atlanta,” he said, referring to the SEC championship game. “There’s a lot of football to be played. If we win out, (with) two losses, we’re still alive, technically, in the SEC West.”
The Bulldogs might not get there, but it won’t be for lack of effort on either side of the ball.
After Kentucky tied it 17-17 late in the third, it seemed to have the momentum, especially with MSU’s offense struggling. But quarterback Chris Relf engineered a fourth quarter go-ahead scoring drive for the second consecutive week.
It was set up by a sack of Hartline on a third-and-6. MSU took over at its own 37, and Relf hit Chad Bumphis for 35 yards on the first play.
Relf converted a third-and-1 with his legs, and capped the seven-play drive with a 5-yard dash up the middle after faking a handoff to Bumphis.
It was 24-17 with 10:28 to go. The defense did the rest.
“The defense played real good tonight, made some big stops,” Relf said. “I don’t think we executed real well on offense, but we made some big plays to win the game.”
Relf was 7 of 16 for 111 yards and a touchdown passing, and he rushed for 79 yards on 16 carries.
Vick Ballard, back after missing last week’s game with an ankle injury, rushed for 103 yards on 14 carries, with a 54-yard TD run in the first quarter.
State finished with 325 total yards, with 214 of that on the ground.
“That’s by far the most three-and-outs we’ve had on the season,” Mullen said. “We have to move the ball a little bit, give (the defense) a little bit of a breather sometimes.”
MSU ran 58 offensive plays to Kentucky’s 85. The Wildcats had 347 total yards, with Hartline going 23 of 41 for 258 yards and two touchdowns.
His favorite target was Randall Cobb, who had 12 catches for 171 yards and a score.
As MSU’s offense went stagnant after halftime – unable to capitalize off a Corey Broomfield fumble recovery – Kentucky put together a 12-play, 81-yard scoring drive capped by Hartline’s 2-yard pass to fullback Moncell Allen with 1:37 left in the third.
Kentucky converted two fourth downs on the drive, and that tied it 17-17.
Hartline threw two interceptions in the second quarter, and on the same series. Chris White picked off at the MSU 22 but fumbled it back on the return.
But two plays later, safety Nickoe Whitley made a leaping interception in the end zone to snuff out the drive at the 5:27 mark.
Derek DePasquale, who made five field goals the previous week, opened the scoring with a 33-yarder at the 10:49 mark of the first quarter. The lead moved to 10-0 on MSU’s next possession. when Ballard got loose up the middle for a 54-yard touchdown run.
Kentucky answered with Hartline’s 48-yard scoring toss to Cobb, and it was 10-7 after a quarter.
Relf pushed MSU’s lead to 17-7 early in the second, hitting Arceto Clark for a 21-yard TD pass on play action. That capped a 10-play, 81-yard drive.
UK cut it to 17-10 with a 43-yard Craig McIntosh field goal at the halftime horn.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.